Growing up in Merrill, Leroy Miller didn’t feel he was ready for college. The only future he could see for himself involved working on a dairy farm.
So when the farm where he was employed started to go under, Miller’s prospects seemed to grow dim. What else could he do?
His immediate answer was to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and join the military. Miller was in basic training when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. A few months later, he was part of the U.S. invasion force that went into Afghanistan.
As an Army Ranger, Miller and his fellow soldiers had to make difficult decisions every day. The experience only redoubled his commitment to the country.
“I feel like I’m committed forever to serving America because I did make it back and some of my friends didn’t,” he said “So I wanted to work in a profession where I’m able to help other Americans and at the same time, it helps me.”
Miller left the military in 2009 and worked until 2015 as a security contractor overseas. He wanted to come back to the U.S. but wasn’t sure how to go about building a career.
Miller, 35, found a lifeline after taking part in the Operating Engineers Local 139’s Combat to Construction program. He now works as an operator at Payne & Dolan in Waukesha.
“I started in this profession because I felt it was an extension of continuing to give back to the country and it was an extension of being able to give back to the community,” he said. “That’s what motivated me all those years I was in the military.”
Miller was the Operating Engineers’ 2016 apprentice of the year.
“When I got out the military and when I got out of security contracting, it just seemed like America didn’t hire people like me at that time,” Miller said. “The Operating Engineers did. I had a family, two kids, a wife and they gave me this opportunity and I’m forever grateful and indebted to them because of that.”
While in the military, Miller was an infantry squad leader and Ranger school instructor. He now serves as vice commander of the American Legion Post 139, where he continues to support veterans.
After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September, Miller took part in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Blue Tarp program, which had him securing tarps to the roofs of houses that were damaged in the storm.
“I feel that what makes me happy in life is service,” he said.
Terry McGowan, president and business manager of Operating Engineers Local 139, said Miller stands out because of his drive and willingness to provide whatever help he can.
“He asks a lot of questions, he’s very attentive, but I guess more than anything else, he leads by example,” he said. “He’s someone our younger operating engineers can look up to.”
As an example of what he means, McGowan noted Miller’s work on a tiny-house project meant to help veterans in Racine. McGowan said Miller played a large role in both rounding up equipment for the work and transporting the houses themselves.
And when there was an opportunity to build a handicap-accessible trail at Camp American Legion on Lake Tomahawk, Miller didn’t hesitate to step into a leadership role.
“He would literally work sunup to sundown,” McGowan said.