SOUTH BEND—When 2nd Lt. Nicole Miller talks, two rings glint in the sunshine of the Elixir Cafe where her pale pink-tipped fingers hug a huge cup of black coffee. She is in civilian dress: sandals, jeans and a summer shirt. Her long brown hair with gold glints is worn loose, her light green eyes with darker specks are direct.
On her right hand is a class ring, a ruby surrounded with three small diamonds. When Miller was a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the class crest pointed toward her heart, now the crest on the simple and elegant ring points outward as the initials of the academy face toward her.
“Forever One Team” was the motto for the class of 2014, and the 2010 Willapa Valley high school graduate takes it to heart. She is close to many in her squad of three women and seven men. The men in her squad “who are like my brothers” helped her hug out the death of her grandfather Henry Miller of Raymond, who also served in the U.S. Army.
The three women will be bridesmaids at her wedding to fellow graduate, 2nd Lt. Devin Lang of Georgia, who gave her the diamond surrounded by a ring of smaller diamonds she wears on her left hand.
Miller, who graduated from West Point on May 28, has been busy. She took a cross country trip (complete with ’70s music) with her father, retired Raymond Fire Chief Kevin Miller. She got in a visit with her mother Tammy Jones. (Her parents divorced when she was 6). She was a bridesmaid at her sister Tiffany Rollins’ “beautiful simple wedding in a vineyard” near Yakima and got to see her brother, Pacific Lutheran University graduate, Nathan.
Her life in the U.S. Army is so new, as she transitions from cadet to commissioned officer, it takes her a second or two to realize cadets and those at a lower rank are saluting her first.
The journey began when she aimed to enroll in the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, to help pay for college. Her father’s public service inspired her, as did her mother’s sense of adventure. Her mother is the author of a book titled “Alaska Bound, One Man’s Dream, One Woman’s Nightmare.”
She knew she wanted to explore, to see the world and gain a wider world view.
She credits Karla Webber, whose son Andrew graduated from West Point in 2005, who “pushed me” to apply. Her father, who she lived with in high school, suggested she throw the javelin. The late Jim Henrie, who had been a track and field coach, taught her how. “I adored him,” she said. She won the state 2B title in the javelin as a senior and ended up being recruited for the team at West Point.
When the acceptance letter arrived four years ago it was time “quit talking and start doing,” she said.
What helped her was an attitude that she didn’t know what to expect and had a lot to learn. Women still comprise less than 20 percent of the classes at West Point. Close to 300 in her class of 1,400 cadets dropped out or were kicked out before junior year when they must commit.
She made it by realizing “it’s a man’s world, you have to fit in and stand out,” all while staying grounded and humble, she said.
It helped that, unusually, her squad was allowed to stay together throughout its four years. “I’m glad we weren’t changed.” she said. Of most of her colleagues and leaders, she says: “These people would do anything for you. And I would do anything for them.”
Work was tough. “Your day was so managed,” she said. She ticks off her day: formation, clean up, shine shoes, classes, three hours of track practice, hours of homework, inspections and social hour, during which she frequently called her mom and dad.
She learned to pause and reflect. Once a week, she liked to just sit, “to take a little ground.”
Dealing with sexism
Freeing the academy and the military from sexism “is still a process,” Miller says. She found a few mentors in former women graduates and encourages those who will follow her to pursue the oldest military academy in the country if it is their dream.
Sexism can be more subtle now than it was when women were first accepted in 1976, she said.
She did have a few experiences with male cadets who made off color or sexist remarks. Before the academy, she didn’t really hear sexist comments such as “‘don’t be such a girl.’” Those comments “stick out to me now. They have different meanings.” She “deals with it accordingly,” putting people in their place, telling them “don’t talk to girls like that.”
She commends Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, Jr. the new superintendent of the academy, who called for prevention of future incidents and development of character as paths to pursue following a series of scandals regarding sexual assault and harassment.
“It has become, as it should be, more of an intervention education,” she said. “No one necessarily sees themselves as someone who will be assaulted or as someone who will do the assaulting. So if we speak to the majority of the population in a tone that isn’t accusatory on either side, we will reach more people and hopefully increase awareness.” The army is definitely heading in the right direction on the issue, she added in email.
Women should serve in infantry and in combat, if held to the same physical standards, given that bodies are made differently which should be honored, she said.
Women can bring another perspective in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq where women don’t speak directly to men. “Women can communicate with them and it would be beneficial while doing the same jobs,” she said.
When confronted with cadets or others who are less qualified, she recalls the mandate of leadership that it is “our job to help them be better … we will help you get where you need to go.’”
She also remembers to be humble, having “no right to arrogance.”
She loves dress uniforms, and prefers the skirt “unless I can’t find my heels.”
At graduation, her class listened intently to President Barack Obama’s speech. Hearing it straight from the Commander in Chief takes on new meaning when you might be sent abroad, she said. “I got to shake his hand. The speech was cool, it was a foreign policy speech and we got to hear it from his mouth.”
She knows her family is concerned she may be sent overseas, but it’s her responsibility. “What’s going to happen is going to happen … (I’ll) just keep my nose to the grindstone and do the job to the best of my ability.”
The youngest of three siblings, Miller says, “I enjoy time with people I don’t get to see.” Webber and friends in the Willapa Valley planned to throw her a party on her 23rd birthday the 5th of July. She is still in touch with Capt. Andrew Webber, whose wife just had a baby in Germany where they are stationed.
From here, Miller and Lang will travel back across country to Ft. Lee, Va., where she will train for four months to be a logistics officer in charge of moving everything from troops to missiles to food and equipment. “I like to organize things,” said Miller who majored in “human geography or human anthropology with a geological focus.”
She met Lang at the academy through mutual friends and told her roommate, “I could marry him” in the first week. They spent two weeks talking and became engaged a year after they started dating.
She will then join Lang who will already be stationed at Ft. Sill, Okla. Each will serve at least five years on active duty and another three in the reserves. They plan to marry in Amboy at her father and stepmother’s new home next July.
Erin Hart, 360-537-3932, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DW_Erin