After roaming the mountains for a decade, Vietnam vet struggles to reclaim his identity —
When doctors told Richard Miley in the spring of 1981 the bone cancer in his left leg was going to kill him, he made up his mind. ¶ He was ready to die but not in a hospital.
With death looming, Miley, a Vietnam War veteran stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder and amnesia, hitchhiked and walked as he had for years from his cave outside Estes Park to Mount Wilson, a stunning 14,000-foot peak in the
San Juan mountain range southwest of Telluride.
“Basically, I had gone there to die,” Miley said. “I had the cancer of the bone, in my left leg, and I went up there, found me a fine pine tree and just laid there.”
Though Miley had never set out to die before, he had undertaken similar treks since the mid-1970s, living in caves and surviving off the land and what little money he could make working odd jobs every summer in the state’s resort or orchard communities.
He had lived in the wilderness since 1974 when he left behind a house in Loveland and a job, helping turn around failing Village Inn restaurants around the region.
Since returning from Vietnam in 1970, the stress of his two years at war had slowly whittled away his memory and desire to live around other people. Within the span of less than half a decade, Miley had transformed from a proud veteran into an ambling husk that could hardly recall much of the man he was.
However, Miley’s final trek — or what should have been his last — ended early when mine owner Bob Milner drove by the destitute veteran, who had propped himself up on an old wooden fence along a Jeep road.
“He was just sitting along the road as you get way up there,” Milner said. “I didn’t think anything of it. I was going up to a (gold) mine.”
When Milner and his son passed Miley a second time, they decided to stop and talk to him. After that conversation, Milner decided he could not leave Miley to die.
Milner said they brought Miley back to Paonia and let him live on several acres they owned near an abandoned coal mine northeast of town.
“I was so weak, I couldn’t stand up,” Miley said. “And my mind was not functioning. … After two or three months, though,
I started getting my sense back together and I realized the cancer had gone.”
It was only then, with Miley living in camper shells and shelters he called “condos,” that fragments of Miley’s past began to coalesce.
The transient they had found leaning against a fence on Mount Wilson was, in fact, a veteran who had not only served in intelligence in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, but also had helped survey the Alaskan pipeline immediately after he enlisted in 1966.
Probing Miley’s past, however, became a years-long process that took overcoming not only his post-traumatic stress disorder, but also the amnesia that his time in Vietnam had caused.
“It was very bad,” Miley said. “Lots of killing.”
After Miley relocated with Milner to the outskirts of Paonia in 1981, his mental health continued to slowly deteriorate.
Miley eventually managed, in the late 1980s, to visit a Veterans Affairs hospital where he learned he was afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder and started seeing a psychiatrist.
Even with his diagnosis, Miley still had difficulty learning exactly what he had done in Vietnam.
“My records were sealed. … When I went to the (Veterans Affairs hospital), there was nothing in my record that showed I had been in Vietnam except for one hospital document regarding when I was wounded and in the Saigon hospital,” Miley said.
Miley said the Central Intelligence Agency, pressed by the American Legion, eventually sent him a letter saying he had served in Vietnam, though they declined to say specifically what he was doing.
With that letter in hand, Miley worked with the American Legion through the winter of 1993 to qualify for full disability benefits.
Once Miley started receiving his benefits and had his post-traumatic stress disorder under control, he began venturing into town and hanging out at the local American Legion post and the bar inside the Gunnison River Pleasure Park outside Hotchkiss. There, in the late 1990s, he met Joe Kaputa.
After the two became friends, Miley, a captain in the U.S. Army, approached Kaputa, also a Vietnam War veteran, and asked the former Marine corporal to help find out what Miley had done in Vietnam.
Miley asked him to probe Web sites for information on his military record or to see if anyone had known him during the war.
Kaputa said one man responded with an e-mail saying he had served with Miley in Vietnam and the two celebrated the end of their tours at California nightclubs and on a fishing trip.
“I read that e-mail to him, and it was like a light went off,” Kaputa said.
Though Miley still has gaps in his memory about Vietnam, his efforts along with those of his friends and the American Legion were rewarded when Congressman John Salazar, D-Colo., awarded him a series of medals, including a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, this year.
Looking back, Miley, 64, said his life certainly has improved from his time living off roots, wild berries and spring water.
He lives in a home the American Legion built down the hill from his old “condo” and, thanks to his benefits, can enjoy the handful of things he loves — chocolate, painting and watching the Broncos.
“The best thing … my psychiatrist told me is, go back to your mountains and live on this land where I have no neighbors and just live as peaceful a life as you can,” Miley said. “And that’s what I have been doing.”
“I just want to live in peace and harmony,” Miley added. “You leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone.”