A life lesson in duty, love, and hellish war
Last Tuesday, Janice Milley was alone in her house in Sudbury, typing out a Facebook message to her 23-year-old son, Lieutenant Scott Milley, an Army Ranger in Afghanistan.
“Miss you,’’ she wrote.
And then there was a knock at the door and she looked through the glass and saw a flash of medals and a green uniform, and wouldn’t that be just like Scott, the prankster, the wise guy, to sneak home for a surprise visit.
Janice Milley flung open the door and found two soldiers standing there, and neither one of them was her son.
“Fifteen minutes later, and I would have been home and we would have got the news together,’’ said her husband, Steve Milley.
Steve Milley sat on the couch in the family room of the yellow house on Basswood Avenue, his eyes red from lack of sleep, remembering a son who knew he was going to be a soldier from the time he slid on a pair of camouflage pajamas as a 3-year-old.
Most kids outgrow the Army man thing. Scott Milley pursued it with seriousness and purpose. He was born to be a soldier, born to be a leader.
Sudbury is a picturesque, affluent town that produces some of the best athletes and students in the metropolitan area, and Scott Milley was one of them. He captained the hockey team at Lincoln-Sudbury High. He was an honors student at the University of New Hampshire.
Sudbury isn’t known for producing soldiers. Scott Milley is the town’s first soldier to die in combat since the Vietnam War.
“I can think of maybe five kids I know who went into the service,’’ said Scott’s big brother, Steven Jr. “But this was Scott’s destiny. That’s what he was going to do.’’
Scott Milley was a bundle of contradictions. Physically and mentally tough, he was afraid of spiders and kept a teddy bear until he went off to college. After his freshman year at UNH, he announced that he would continue in the ROTC program but wouldn’t take his commission as an officer, wanting instead to go into the Army as a grunt.
“We talked him out of that,’’ his father said.
But they couldn’t talk him out of volunteering for combat. After joining the 10th Mountain Division, Scott asked to be sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana instead of Fort Drum in New York, because the battalion at Fort Polk was going to Afghanistan first.
“We tried to deter him,’’ his father said. “What parent wants their son to go off to war? But Scott had a plan, and nothing we could say would change that.’’
Scott’s plan was to join the FBI or the CIA after the Army. He believed the military would best prepare him for that, and so he arrived last month in Baraki Barak, in Logar Province, determined that things there would be better by the time he left. His first words off the plane, seeing the mountains and purple horizon, were, “This place is beautiful.’’
Scott Milley could talk to anybody and make that person his friend. He liked the Afghans. He schmoozed the local governor, knowing his mission was about hearts and minds more than guns and ammo, and the governor liked the earnest young officer. But the platoon Scott led took Taliban fire from the get-go. He sent friends and family e-mails, providing a glimpse of a war about which most Americans don’t have a clue.
He wrote about being pinned down by gunfire, taking cover behind a building with a bunch of civilians, whom he greeted in their native language. He made faces at the kids, their backs to the wall, and the kids smiled and laughed. It was so Scott.
Last Tuesday, his platoon came under small-arms fire again, and Scott Milley was shot and killed. The local governor announced they would have a day of mourning for the young American officer who in less than a month had won over so many local people.
An hour and a half after the two men in uniform delivered the news, the yellow house on Basswood Avenue was full of people, hugging, crying. The next day, Scott’s parents, his brother and his sister Ashley flew down to Dover Air Force Base to await the return of his body.
“There’s a hotel there, and they offered us four rooms,’’ his father said. “But all we needed was one big bed.’’
They sat on the bed, unable to sleep, telling Scott stories, and they laughed and they cried and they asked if it was OK to be mad at Scott and mad at the war and then they cried some more. Every emotion — pride, anger, guilt, helplessness, unbearable sorrow — washed over them, like unrelenting waves.
Scott’s body arrived at Dover about 20 hours after they did.
Four days before his unit shipped out, Scott Milley was driving down a country road in Louisiana when he nearly hit a stray puppy. He stopped his car, got out, and whistled. The puppy, a yellow Lab, came trotting up. He picked her up and named her Bentley, like the car, because he always wanted a Bentley.
He called his father and asked him to fly down to pick up his car, to give to his sister. When Steve Milley got to Fort Polk, he found out part of the deal was he had to take the puppy back to Sudbury. Bentley sat on Steve Milley’s neck, like a furry scarf, the last 60 miles.
Herb Chambers, the car dealer, has donated use of a fleet of Bentleys for the funeral. All over Sudbury, yellow ribbons are being tied to trees and telephone poles, yellow like the house on Basswood Avenue.
And inside that yellow house, Janice Milley sat on a bed, hugging her son’s teddy bear, as if it was the toddler who once held it. Bentley inched toward Janice Milley and nuzzled up against her, trying to do the impossible, trying to console an inconsolable mother.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.