Joe Miller of Old Town. Credit: Ashley Conti

Where is home for you? Is it where you live now or a place where you used to live? Does a person, not a place, embody home for you?

We tend to describe veterans returning from combat overseas as “coming home.” But for many veterans, their home changes. Or their perspective of it changes. How do they find — or create — their new hometown?

Over the next couple days we’ll share videos of veterans talking about what coming home meant to them.

Joe Miller: Age 33, of Old Town, a graduate student at the University of Maine studying history.

Service: Captain in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Served three tours in Iraq, in 2004-2005, 2005 and 2007.

Joe Miller grew up in a military household, with his father in the Air Force. His family moved often — to Japan, California, Delaware — and Miller went to college in the mountains of Georgia. It was there, in that rural space, that he developed a sense of belonging.

He joined the Army and was sent to Iraq where a string of events in a short period would weigh on him for a long time: soldiers dying, an ambush, a funeral, a shot at him that nearly ended his life, and the death of his grandfather. He said he remembers it all being too much, but there wasn’t time to process it.

After three violent tours, it was his long-time goal of getting his graduate degree and being a history professor that helped him transition to civilian life. The Frito Lay plant in his hometown in Georgia was offering a well-paying job, and he knew he could get it, but he didn’t apply. He wanted a fresh start.

He looked to Maine. The University of Maine was the first college where he felt welcome, he said, as the school counted his military experience. Plus, Maine has mountains.

“Home was something I was going to have to redefine,” he said. “It wasn’t a place particularly. It was something that I had to develop and put work into.”

Post-traumatic stress is still a reality for him, one that’s difficult for others to see and understand. At the same time, he said, it’s a natural survival response. What he saw was hard, and it affected him, and that’s a good thing.

On his second tour, an improvised explosive device blew up the stairwell he was in, and he was thrown to the ground with a concussion. Stairwells, particularly those with a window, now trigger panic attacks. So he’s turned to face that trigger directly.

You might see him running up and down the Alfond stadium in the summer and the stairwell in the UMaine field house in the winter.

“If I take that time to face the trigger on my own, it’s not like it goes away, but I’m going to schedule the panic attack,” he said.

He also runs up mountains — in Clifton and Acadia National Park. (He tries to get to the point where he knows each trail without a map.) Once he gets to the top, he can see for miles in all directions. He’s literally centered. And safe.

If you’re interested in learning more about veterans’ recovery from trauma, MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Shay will give a free keynote on the trials of homecoming at 6 p.m., Wednesday, May 13, at Wells Conference Center at the University of Maine.

Avatar photo

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...