AT RETIREMENT, A MARINE REMEMBERS HEROES, TAKES HIS PLACE AMONG THEM

John Sonderegger
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
June 19, 2002
Section: ST. CHARLES COUNTY POST
Edition: FIVE STAR LIFT
Page 2

On a clear day Friday at the Veterans Memorial at St. Peters City Hall, Lennie Miller could see forever. It was his day to retire from the Marines, so he took us back in time, back to our youth.


Charleytown was a north St. Louis County kid, just like Miller. We called Ferguson home, he called Berkeley home. We both knew Reavis Montrey, an outstanding baseball pitcher from Ferguson. Reavis' family owned Montrey's Tavern, at the corner of Florissant Road and Suburban Avenue in Ferguson. He was in the same class as our younger brother, Tom. They played little league ball against each other.


Reavis was like any other kid in the 1960s. He did some work at his dad's place of business, just like we worked at our dad's place of business, Ferguson Bake Shop.

Miller played baseball against Montrey throughout his youth. He remembers Reavis throwing a no-hitter at the old Busch Stadium in a game in which his team lost. Miller remembers that Reavis was drafted by the Cardinals out of high school and that he went to Mizzou on a scholarship. "But he hurt his arm or something," Miller recalled.

We remember Reavis more as a little kid, with a buzz cut and a wide grin. We had gone off to school and left town before Reavis became a big baseball hero.

The next time we heard his name was in November 1965. He had been killed in Vietnam. He was the first young man from Ferguson to die in the faraway war. The town went into mourning, and the laughter at Montrey's Tavern was never the same.

On Friday, when the last active enlisted Marine on active duty during the Tet Offensive in 1968 retired in a colorful and bittersweet ceremony in St. Peters, Lennie Miller remembered our homey, Reavis Montrey.

"You know 35 years ago when I enlisted into the Marine Corps, it was intended to be a single tour of duty," Miller said. "In November, 1965, the reality of Vietnam hit home. A young man I played baseball against in my early years had enlisted into the Marines and shortly thereafter was killed in Vietnam.

"Reavis Montrey's death, although tragic, was the inspiration I needed to serve my country. Reavis had been a star pitcher throughout his entire life. But serving his country had taken on more significance than playing the one game he truly loved."

Miller was inspired to follow Montrey's lead. We were inspired to keep that 2-S college deferment as long as possible and stay out of Vietnam.

Miller enlisted in the Marine Corps and wound up in Vietnam. He joined the Marines in 1966 at the age of 19. Master Gunnery Sgt. Miller had a distinguished military career in Vietnam, earning the Bronze Star with a combat V for valor, the Purple Heart, three Navy Commendation Medals (one with a combat V for valor) and Combat action ribbon.

He was an M-60 machine gunner and point man assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Recon Battalion, 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan wrote a Memorial Day column about Miller. Like Lennie, McClellan was in Vietnam as a Marine corporal.

McClellan wrote, "Miller arrived in Vietnam in March 1967. The recon fellows were a breed apart. Peepers and creepers, they were called. They'd go out for seven to 10 days, and then they'd spend several days at division rear before going out again. They had two kinds of missions. The first was an area reconnaissance. They would spend the mission on the move. The second was stationary observation. They'd set up on a hill and stay there. An ideal patrol meant no contact. See and not be seen. But because recon teams were sent into areas thick with enemy troops, it was hard to avoid contact. During Miller's 21 months in Vietnam, he went out on 37 long-range patrols. Twenty-three of them involved contact with the enemy."

We remembered all of this as we watched Miller, rigid and strong yet tender and merciful, read his retirement speech on Friday. Some members from his Vietnam recon team were there. They had been out of uniform for a long time, and it showed. They looked like any other group of men in their mid-50s, a little gray and a little stout.

They watched as Miller officially ended a 35-plus-year career. He had left the Marines when his hitch was up in 1970, and went into the reserves. He returned to active duty 11 years later and enjoyed a solid career in recruiting duty. He fondly remembered Melvin Riley, whom he called his hero. It was Riley who volunteered to take Miller's watch on the night of Sept. 4, 1967. It was Miller's 20th birthday, and he was on a hill southwest of Da Nang in the former South Vietnam.

Riley died that night when the Viet Cong came up the hill.

"I discovered that war was not easy," Miller said Friday. "The pains of the heart can be more destructive than the physical wounds inflicted by any enemy. And today I am reminded of the highly acclaimed film 'Saving Private Ryan.' It is a story that ends with a lone survivor of World War II visiting the gravesite of one of his fallen heroes. As he kneels beside his grave, he tells his fallen comrade that he hopes he has lived a good life.

"Many of us here today have our fallen heroes. Melvin Riley is mine. ... I must tell you that for more than three decades, I have walked in the shadow of that lone soldier of World War II. Each Memorial Day, I have visited the gravesite of my hero, Melvin Riley. Each time I visit, my heart speaks to the spirit of a 19-year-old fellow Marine whose selfless devotion to duty gave me the opportunity to live a full life.

"As I kneel next to his grave, I not only remove the debris from an aging headstone, I tell him about the men and women of extraordinary courage that we served with in Vietnam.

"I've told him of the struggle we faced for recognition and reassured him that his spirit would reside with more than 58,000 others in the greater glory for their sacrifice. I told him about the moral conscience of a divided America and how that same moral decadence has turned into a deeply rooted respect for our generation of warriors. I've told him how the sacrifice of so many has changed the battlefield ethos forever.

"I told him it is a new generation of warrior that follows in his footsteps, but they fight with the same moral courage, and will take the same battlefield dignity to our enemies, and we will win! I told him it is upon the wings of men just like him that demands it."

As Lennie Miller spoke, tears well in the eyes of many at this ceremony of pomp and circumstance. And we realized that this proud man, committed to honor and duty to serve his country, should be the lasting legacy of Vietnam and our generation.

Later that evening, we spoke with Miller at a reception at the NCO Club at the National Guard Base across from Lambert Field.

"I'm just a regular guy," he said.

No you're not, Lennie. You're a hero.


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Retirement Article 2