John Miller shares a D-Day memory with high school student Andrew Ragains visiting Access Housing’s veterans facility. (The Washington Post/Hamil R. Harris)
When two van loads of teenagers from the First Congregational Church in Chicago pulled up to volunteer at a housing facility for homeless veterans in Southeast D.C. on Wednesday, they never thought that their urban missionary trip would bring them face to face with a 92-year-old veteran who was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy 70 years ago.
On June 6, 1944, the English Channel was filled with ships, landing crafts and soldiers charging a beach and scaling a cliff in a storm of bullets. Five days after the assault began, it would be time for 22-year-old John N. Miller to fix a bayonet to his weapon and move onto a beach saturated with equipment, bullets and the blood of American soldiers.
As he thumbed through a special edition of Life Magazine entitled “D-Day Seventy Years later,” Miller stopped at a photo of World War II soldiers stabbing their bayonets into the ground. His eyes were watery. “I tear up when I think about this day. The soldiers are probing the land with their bayonets for land mines. I did this.”
The Veterans Service Center, which is operated by Access Housing Inc., is filled with homeless veterans from many wars, and it is a hub for volunteers and youth groups from across the country who use part of their visits to the nation’s capital to perform acts of service.
Mike Tilden, youth pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Chicago, said 33 high school students from the church came to the District this week. In addition to painting the walls of the facility and loading up shelves with blankets and canned goods, the teenagers learned a lot about D-Day from someone who was there.
“We had no idea that we would get to meet someone who was actually part of the D-Day invasion,” said Tilden as the students worked in the shelter. “Our hope, first and foremost, is that they will grow in their relationship to God and understand the value and importance of serving others.”
One of the teens, Andrew Ragains, 17, told Miller, “It is incredible to hear the stories from Mr. Miller.”
Miller only spent two years in uniform. Following the war, he attended Howard University and then took a job in the liquor industry. He has outlived his wife, several landlords and housing situations. Three years ago, he got the chance move into the Access Housing because of a special program for veterans.
Miller’s story was inspiring to Jonathon Lambert, 24, a Marine Corps veteran who despite receiving an Honorable Discharge in 2009, ended up homeless and living in a car with his wife and small child. Today he is being treated for post- traumatic stress, depression and anxiety disorders.
MIller encourages other veterans at the Access Housing facility. (The Washington Post/Hamil R. Harris)
“This wonderful gentleman serving allowed me to serve,” Lambert said. “I am happy to come back and to see people happy because I served in a country where people don’t have a lot of rights.”
But Lambert said not all veterans have done as well as Miller. “Not every veteran retires, not every veteran is elderly, some veterans are like myself, we get hurt, we come back with medical illnesses and mental disorders that doctors can’t help and we need help too.”
George Crawford, president of Access Housing, said, “This facility is important to our nation and it is important to residents of the District of Columbia to make sure that these men and women have a safe and decent place to live especially since they sacrifice so much. We need to give a place to rest their head; it is an obligation.”
Miller said he was in France from June to December. One of the scariest moments came while he was serving in E Company in the 56th Armored Division. “I volunteered to be a First Scout and I also had the opportunity to be the mail clerk for the unit. I chose to be the mail clerk and the guy who took my place was killed the very next day,” said Miller adding being a mail clerk gave him a front seat to the carnage. “We saw one of our tanks that had been repaired and on its way back to the front, but when we were coming back, we saw the same tank. It was blown to bits.”