'Marlboro Man' turns against war he symbolised

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A cigarette hung from his mouth in the manner of John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart, his grime-covered face showed the exhaustion of battle.

This image of US Marine Lance-Corporal Blake Miller, taken during the battle of Fallujah, instantly captured the public imagination and for a while he was known simply as Marlboro Man.

But 15 month after that photograph appeared in more than 100 US newspapers, the 21-year-old is back from Iraq, back on civvy street and he is talking about the trauma of what he experienced and the scars he still bears, physical and mental. The once unquestioning Marine is now also questioning whether US forces should be in Iraq.

The mental health experts who are treating him call his condition post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but Mr Miller describes it in more immediate language: nightmares, sleeplessness and periods when he will "blank out", not knowing where he is or what he is doing. "I could tell you stories about Iraq that would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck," he said. "And I could tell you things that were great over there. But that would still not tell you what it was actually like. You had to be there and go through it to really understand."

Mr Miller is not alone. The federal Veterans Affairs (VA) department revealed last week that up to a third of US troops returning from Iraq or Afghanistan - about 40,000 - suffer mental health problems. It is to spend an extra $29m (£16.3m) on troops who have PTSD. Days ago, The Independent reported the suicide of another veteran of the Iraq war, Doug Barber, a National Guardsman who took his life after struggling with his experiences of the war after he returned to civilian life.

Mr Miller, who received an honourable discharge last November after military psychologists decided he would be a threat to himself or his colleagues if he continued to serve, said there remained a stigma about mental health issues. He told Knight Ridder Newspapers: "I want people to know that PTSD is not something people come down with because they are crazy. It's an anxiety disorder, where you've experienced something so traumatic that you're close to death." Mr Miller's photograph was taken in November 2004 during the battle for Fallujah, the insurgent stronghold. The two-week operation resulted in the deaths of up to 50 US troops, an estimated 1,200 insurgents and an unknown number of civilians.

The former Marine says he now questions the US tactics and believes troops should have been withdrawn some time ago. He said: "When I was in the service my opinion was whatever the Commander-in-Chief's opinion was. But after I got out, I started to think about it. The biggest question I have now is how you can make a war on an entire country when a certain group from that country is practising terrorism against you. It's as if a gang from New York went to Iraq and blew some stuff up and Iraq started a war against us because of that."

Mr Miller's image was captured by the Los Angeles Times photographer Luis Sinco. At the time, he smoked five packs a day. Now, recently married and looking to make a fresh start, he has cut down to just one.

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