It was a cold and rainy day in 2011, and First Sergeant Deadrea Miller, USA, Retired, sat in her car unable to move. She had made it to her destination Atlanta’s Fort McPherson — but was suddenly paralyzed by vivid memories of her time in Afghanistan.
“Rainy days often triggered visions from those days,” she says.
Miller was having a panic attack. Though she did not know the exact cause, she knew it was connected to her service in Afghanistan eight years earlier with the 18th Airborne Corps. She had recently begun having vivid nightmares about the nine months she spent there.
“The recurring nightmares were of me in combat and of me losing friends in combat,” she says.
Miller sat in the car for several hours until some Department of Defense officials noticed and came to help her. She knew she couldn’t continue to live like that, so she called a friend who referred her to the Atlanta Veteran Affairs Medical Center (VA).
Before this incident the same friend, also a veteran, had tried to convince Miller to go to the VA.
“She told me she noticed changes in my behavior,” Miller says. “I had become withdrawn, and she was concerned about me. I was in denial at the time and did not listen, but it turns out she was right. I needed help.”
Upon retiring from the Army after 22 years of service, Miller had jumped into a new life and did not have much time to process her time in the military.
“When I left the Army,” she says, “I quickly found a job that kept me busy.”
Miller joined L-3 Communications as a project manager in charge of more than 75 government contracts. She traveled often. The fast pace of her job mirrored her role in the Army, where she worked in logistics and was the first woman airborne paratrooper with the XVII Airborne Corps Artillery (Combat Arms Command), nicknamed “America’s Contingency Corps” for its rapid global deployment.
“While in the Army, I managed a 270-person combat company and oversaw a $286 million budget, so I was used to having a large, challenging workload,” she says.
Things went well until she was laid off after seven years of employment. For the first time in decades, Miller’s life slowed down, and she had time to think about her military experience. The idle time and change of pace brought on nightmares, depression and the unveiling of what the VA counselors diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“I’d had many challenges in Afghanistan,” Miller says. “It was hard to leave my family, and being a woman in combat was difficult. I was a senior leader in a command and had to show toughness all the time. I sometimes cried silently in my bunk so the persons to my left and right could not hear me.”
Miller soon realized how easy it was for veterans to end up in her situation.
“When we’re in the military,” she says, “we’re trained to be rough and tough. Many soldiers don’t seek help when they need it.”
Because it took a friend to help her understand she needed help, Miller decided she wanted to be a voice for other veterans — combat and non-combat — who may need help but do not realize it or are unsure of where to start. She began speaking to vets about how and where to get help and also to politicians about laws and issues that help or hinder military personnel.
In 2016, while Miller was a student in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies’ undergraduate social work program, Mark Eister, Georgia State’s director of military outreach, was preparing to start Peer Advisers for Veteran Education (PAVE), a program that connects incoming student veterans with existing student veterans trained as peer advisers. He put out a request for someone who could serve as a PAVE student team leader.
“I got about 20 submissions and Deadrea’s application rose to the top,” says Eister. “She was phenomenal at getting the job done.”
Miller now helps new students navigate college life and address challenges. As a PAVE adviser, she refers them to resources and provides ongoing support.
“Veterans connect with other vets,” she says. “We love swapping stories and helping each other. I wanted to work as a Team Leader with PAVE because I thought it would be a good way to use my project management skills while helping fellow student veterans.”
Miller has since graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work and is now in the school’s Advanced Standing Master of Social Work program. Still active with PAVE, she has expanded her service to veterans as an advocate and mentor for incarcerated vets in the Dekalb County Veterans Treatment Court.
“I advocate for behavioral treatment versus incarceration for veterans who face felony charges,” she says.
Behavioral treatment might include life skills training, mental health treatment, readjustment courses for those having a hard time integrating back into civilian life, and substance abuse rehabilitation programs.
Driving Miller is the belief that people sometimes make poor choices due to their circumstances.
“Everyone has a story, and we should seek to understand that story,” she says. “I believe in justice, but we must also understand what leads individuals to where they are now. This goes back to my military training, which taught me to know your soldiers and look out for their welfare.”
Photo by Meg Buscema