If you've ever been to a veterans event in Pinellas County, you've probably seen Dave Miller.
He's the short, wiry, former Marine sergeant from Largo walking with canes or seated in a wheelchair because of the cancer he contracted as a result of exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
You've seen Miller, 69, because of his tireless work for veterans, largely at the sprawling Bay Pines VA center.
His work is so important that earlier this month, the Department of Veterans Affairs selected him from some 500 nominees for the national male volunteer of the year award — the first one given to someone from Bay Pines.
"I tell you what, it really lifted my spirits," Miller said. "My mom passed on Feb. 7 and I learned about the award the next day. It doesn't make up for the loss of a mother, but it did lift my spirits."
Miller was born in the Philadelphia suburb of Limerick and joined the Marines in 1966. Two years later, he received a Purple Heart medal after being hit with shrapnel during a rocket attack in Quang Tri province in North Vietnam. But his biggest health woes were yet to come.
In 1999, he was diagnosed with cancer that the VA attributed to the defoliant Agent Orange, which was widely used during the war. More than 70 chemo and radiation treatments damaged the nerves in Miller's spine, forcing him to use the canes or wheelchair.
Like a lot of Vietnam veterans, Miller said he had trouble adjusting to life once he returned home.
"I had a lot of problems for years," he said. "I couldn't hold a job. I was always moving. I felt like someone was chasing me all the time, which was common thing with Vietnam combat vets."
In 1989, Miller and Kathy Schaffer, whom he would eventually marry, moved to Florida to get away from the cold and get a new start. It was a game-changing decision.
A year later, Miller began to volunteer helping veterans at Bay Pines, serving as the American Legion National Hospital Representative. It was the beginning of years of helping veterans.
Four or five days a week, Miller can be found at the Bay Pines center, helping veterans navigate the VA. He spends several more hours a week visiting veterans and attending events and ceremonies for veterans.
"With 26 years within the VA volunteer program, and more than 12,700 hours served in support of fellow Veterans, Dave Miller is a consummate advocate for those we are privileged to serve within the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System," said Nathan Witt, chief of the VA Voluntary Service for the Bay Pines system.
Miller said the award is about much more than him.
"The VA gets a lot of bad press for things that happen," he said, but he has always received excellent care and finds that things have improved in the past few years.
While more improvements are needed, Miller said, the award showcases the work of people like him whose only interest is making sure veterans get the care and benefits they deserve.
It's work that's not going to stop any time soon.
"Young kids who need help coming back are not getting help they need," Miller said. "A lot of Vietnam vets are helping. It's something we never got."
The Pentagon announced the death of a service member in a non-combat incident in Ramadi, Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Pfc. Brian P. Odiorne, 21, of Ware, Mass., died Feb. 20 in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, from a non-combat related incident. The incident is under investigation. Odiorne was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
There have been 2,347 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan; 32 U.S. troop deaths and one civilian Department of Defense employee death in support of the follow-up, Operation Freedom's Sentinel in Afghanistan; 29 troop deaths and one civilian death in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the fight against the Islamic State; one troop death in support of Operation Odyssey Lightning, the fight against Islamic State in Libya; and one death under Other Contingency Operations as part of the Global War on Terrorism.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman