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Proud of his roots

By Staff | Jul 10, 2009

One of the hardest things James Miller had to do in his 20 years in the military came at the very end of his career. “I had to give up my North Dakota drivers license and plates,” he said. “It was one of the most painful things I’ve done.”

Members of the armed forces are allowed to keep their home state as their place of residence and use license plates and drivers licenses from that state. That privilege ends upon leaving the military, and Miller, who retired this past January, dutifully made the switch to Pennsylvania plates, the state where he resides with his wife, Melanie, and daughter, Ashlyn. But he adds, “It was hard to give up.”

James was born in Rugby and grew up in Balta. His dad was from Balta and his mother originally from Michigan, and both had served in the Air Force. James grew up thinking he would eventually go into the military, but he had no idea he would stay in for the long haul, reach the rank of Master Sergeant, and retire after 20 years.

Shortly after he enlisted his dad told him, “Don’t join just to come back home. See the world first.”

And James has seen plenty. He worked in tactical and mobile environments as a Satellite Communications Technician, stationed mainly in the southern United States. He was also in and out of the Middle East on a regular basis.

Miller’s wife is originally from Pennsylvania. They met while both were in the Air Force, after the first Gulf War. “She served four years active and two years in the reserves as a dental assistant before she got out,” he said.

Even though North Dakota has two major air bases, he was never assigned here.

“I always tried to get stationed at Minot or Grand Forks, but it never worked out.”

The majority of his career was in combat communications units, such as the 5th Combat Communications Group, out of Georgia. At the close of his career he was an Operations Non-Commissioned Officer for the White House Communications Agency, Special Missions Command at Camp David, Maryland.

“I was assigned at Camp David as part of the Second Residence Mission,” he said. Another team handled communications at the First Residence – the White House. His team apparently did an outstanding job, because President George W. Bush requested that they also serve at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, when he stayed there.

He traveled with Richard Cheney for two-and-one-half years as a Vice Presidential Communications Officer, a stint which included trips to Cheney’s home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and his vacation residence on the Maryland shore. Overall, he served five years at Camp David.

Since retiring from the military on January 1, 2009, the 42-year-old Miller has worked for Alutiiq Global Solutions. He’s a contractor/telecommunications specialist working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)-Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) providing communication capabilities and support required for the on-site management of disaster response activities. “We provide voice, video and data communications for local, state and federal responders,” Miller said. He was deployed in support of the 2009 Presidential Inauguration and worked in Kentucky following the ice storms in February. “For the last several months we’ve been preparing for hurricane season,” he added.

Balta class of ’85

James was one of nine seniors in the Balta School class of 1985 and has fond memories of small town life. He played basketball and ran track and cross country in high school and thinks every student should have that chance, something which isn’t possible in big city schools with hundreds of students per class. “North Dakota was a great place to grow up,” he says, “Those opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities are life-building experiences you never forget.”

He worked for area farmers while in high school and college including a time at the John Mack farm near Balta.

“Work hard, play hard,” he says of the community where he grew up.

He attended the University of North Dakota and the University of Mary prior to enlisting in the Air Force, where he continued his education, receiving an Associate Degree in Applied Science Electronic Systems Technology from the Community College of the Air Force in May 1993.

His North Dakota upbringing impacted his life and work, he says, and his character and values were shaped by rural living. His parents were a big influence, as was working and interacting with members of the local community. He remains close to his best friend from high school, John Wangler, and his wife, Lori, of Rugby.

When in the military James found himself working most weekends and holidays, so he is pleasantly surprised to have them free as a civilian. He comes from a family that loved old cars, and they have become his hobby as well. He attends local car shows, driving either his 1927 Model T roadster pickup, which belonged to his dad, or his mom’s ’65 Mustang.

“I have more fun and enjoyment with the Model T,” he admits. “There aren’t too many people around who know how to drive a three-pedal T versus a two-pedal Model A. Every show I go to I learn something new from local seniors who love to share their childhood experiences about their father’s Model T.”

James returned to Balta nearly every year when he was in the Air Force, and he plans to continue that tradition as a civilian.

“Being raised in Balta and the surrounding area gave me values and tools to adapt and rise above. I’m so proud,” he says emphatically, “to have been raised in North Dakota.”

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