On the fourth day of the war in Iraq, a huge American convoy headed from Kuwait to Baghdad. A dozen heavy trucks and other maintenance vehicles fell behind the rest and got lost.
At sunrise, Iraqi troops ambushed the lost soldiers, firing from both sides of the highway. The Americans sped up to escape the attack, but the Humvee that Pfc. Jessica Lynch was riding in smashed into the back of a jack-knifed American tractor-trailer. Less than a mile behind Lynch, Pfc. Patrick Miller was driving the last truck in the convoy. During the attack, he floored the accelerator, trying to steer and duck bullets at the same time.
Miller says he had not used his weapon at that point. "I used my truck on one of 'em," he says. "An Iraqi jumped out in the middle of the street, and I ran him over."
Iraqi bullets pounded Miller's truck, which also carried Sgt. James Riley and Pfc. Brandon Sloan.
"I knew that we were taking a lot of incoming just from the sounds that were coming around us," Miller says. "It was bouncing off the trucks, bouncin' off the hood. I went to stick my hand out the window to adjust the mirror so I could see 'em comin' from behind. And as I got my hand right to to the window, the mirror just shattered."
At that moment a bullet hit Sloan in his forehead, killing him instantly. "He just tensed up and slumped over. Didn't make a sound or nothing," Miller recalls. He kept driving. "You had to. You couldn't stop and try to take care of him."
He says, "It just felt like a real bad war movie. You were actually seeing people die in front of you."
Bullets then ripped into his truck's transmission, and it lost power. Miller and Riley jumped out and ran forward to where Lynch's Humvee had slammed into the tractor-trailer. Lynch was unconscious and appeared to be dead. All four others inside were killed.
"And it was just like a mangled mess of equipment and everything," MIller says. "I figured there was no way that anybody could survive something like that."
Army specialists Shoshana Johnson and Edgar Hernandez also believed everyone in the Humvee had been killed. They were in the tractor-trailer that Lynch's Humvee had smashed into. All the American vehicles had broken down, but Miller thought they might still escape the ambush in an Iraqi dump truck parked 50 yards up the road.
If there were no keys in the ignition, he says, he would have hot-wired it. Is that something he knows how to do? "I'd have learned really fast," he says.
Johnson and Hernandez were taking cover in their tractor-trailer. Their weapons had jammed and they were pinned down. But Miller ran on toward the dump truck.
"She [Johnson] yells 'Miller! Get down here. You're gonna get hit,'" Miller says. "And I said 'I gotta go.' And I just kept going."
Johnson recalls, "I thought it was going to be the end for all of us."
Johnson was shot in the ankles; Miller took a bullet in his arm. He says there were "a whole bunch" of Iraqis firing on them. "All I could see was the bullets that were hitting the dirt around my feet."
Just when it seemed the situation couldn't get any worse, it did. Miller saw a group of Iraqis setting up a mortar position in front of the dump truck. He says it could have wiped them all out.
To prevent them from firing, Miller dove behind a horseshoe-shaped mount of dirt called a berm, across the highway from the Iraqis. But it was seven Iraqis against one American -- seven Iraqis who were in that mortar pit just 25 yards away.
Miller hadn't fired a weapon for seven months, and he admits he wasn't the best marksman. He was an Army mechanic, and when he'd taken his first marksmanship test, he'd failed it.
So what did he do? "One guy, like, jumped up to where I could see him, and he had a mortar round in his hand, getting ready to drop it in the tube," he says. "And as he jumped up, I just raised my rifle up and shot, and he fell over."
It was the first shot he fired in the incident. The lousy marksman hit home.
But after that first shot, his rifle jammed. He had to pound on it with the palm of his hand, after every shot, to get the next bullet loaded into the chamber. He kept on re-loading and shooting. "I was kind of getting a rhythm down, count like seconds and then look up," he explains. "And you could see somebody else trying to load it. So, I was starting to count, and when I'd get to the number, I'd look up. And somebody else would be trying to load it, and I'd shoot. I did that probably seven times total. I counted the last time, and when I looked up, there wasn't nobody there."
Everybody knows about Jessica Lynch, but nobody knows about Patrick.
"And he did an amazing thing," Johnson says. "He saved our lives. If that mortar had hit that vehicle we were underneath, we'd be gone. And so would Jessica, because it would have been a chain reaction. It had all that fuel, we'd be dead."
Iraqi gunmen surrounded the group and took them prisoner. They went into captivity still believing that Lynch had been killed back in the Humvee. When U.S. Marines came to their rescue 21 days later, they were astonished to learn that their friend had also survived -- but surprised that she'd become a national hero.
Lynch apparently agrees with Johnson and Hernandez that Miller was the hero of the whole operation. Does her $1 million book deal and television movie bother Miller? "Mmm, somewhat," he answers. "But I don't want to get all into that." Would he turn down a $1 million book deal? "Oh no, I'd have to think about it," he laughs.
For now, Miller has been working anonymously in the motor-pool at Fort Carson in Colorado. Three months after the crash, The Washington Post referred to him thusly in an article about Jessica Lynch: "One soldier whose name could not be learned, took cover behind a berm. Iraqi soldiers were on the other side in a mortar pit. He killed a half dozen of them, a defense official said. Soon though, he was surrounded by a couple of dozen armed Iraqis and is believed to have been killed on the spot. 'He didn't have a chance,' said the official."
Miller says he saw the article. "I went to work the next day and said that I wasn't doing nothing at work because the paper said I was dead," he laughs.
Only a month ago, Baltimore Sun reporter Tom Bowman revealed the name of the unsung hero. Bowman had learned that out of the 150,000 U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq, Miller was one of only 90 to receive the Silver Star for valor.
Col. Heidi Brown explains why, out of 2,000 soldiers under her command, Miller was the only one she recommended for one of the Army's highest awards. She says, "Private First Class Miller did things during war that no other soldier underneath my command did. And he risked his life to save his comrades and he absolutely did."
Brown also has an idea why the Pentagon had first mistakenly described Lynch as a fierce warrior who'd been shot and stabbed fighting off Iraqis. The Americans there had heard an Iraqi radio transmission describing a blond American fighting to her last breath before she was shot and stabbed to death.
Now Brown believes they may have confused Lynch with another blond soldier in her unit, Sgt. Donald Walters, whose body was later found shot and stabbed to death. "The Iraqi reports had, whether it was the actual Iraqi, the language, or the translation, used, 'she' instead of 'he' and that is my understanding of why there was confusion in this," she says.
Miller may be the only person who doesn't think he's a hero.
"It's good to know that you actually did something to save other people's lives," he says. "But for me, as far as people saying that I'm a hero, I don't feel that I'm a hero. Because I feel that I was doing my job as a soldier."