Miller has led the Navy’s only boot camp choir for the past seven years with a weekly graduation ceremony where the recruits perform in front of a crowd of up to 4,500 guests.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, guest attendance at graduation was suspended from mid-March 2020 until it resumed Aug. 13. Fortunately for Miller, that meant he was able to lead the singers through seven more ceremonies before departing the drill hall for the last time.
“I do enjoy this job and I’ll miss this as well. It’s a weird job but it’s a job I’ve really enjoyed,” Miller said. “I tell people what I do, and that basically I’m an instructor and I help run graduation.”
And help run it he does. He also serves as production support for the ceremony and aids with logistics and planning for other events aside from the recruit graduation both on and off base. Additionally, he rotates with other staff serving as the master of ceremonies narrating graduations.
Miller graduated from boot camp at RTC in 1989 and hails from Dixon, Tennessee. After boot camp, he spent the next 22 years playing trumpet for the Navy band while stationed in Naples, Italy; Norfolk, Virginia; and Great Lakes, Illinois. While stationed in Great Lakes, he decided to serve as a recruit division commander (RDC) at RTC.
“I was in the Navy band as a first class and was really interested in becoming RDC but I kind of wanted to see it before I did it so came up here in 2000 and did a different tour on a different part of base for four years,” Miller explained. “That’s when I decided I wanted a change of pace to do something different.”
From 2004-2007, he trained eight divisions of recruits in basic military knowledge, all whom also comprised the state flags performing divisions. He returned to the Navy band following his RDC tour where he remained until 2011, at which time he pursued schooling with DePaul University.
His boot camp days came back full circle when he learned his own former RDC, Greg Neville, was departing RTC as the recruit choir director. Miller landed the job and was able to once again learn from Neville, only this time it was how to lead the choir as well as to help run the drill hall.
Chief Musician Brandon Barbee, band director and drill hall instructor at RTC says he is doing his best to learn everything Miller does jobwise so he’ll be able to pass along that information to whomever will replace Miller.
“It will be tough when he leaves because he catches so much stuff. It’s not just his experience as a choir director, it’s his experience here at RTC,” Barbee said, explaining how Miller is on top of everything. “His nickname is ‘The Voice of RTC,’ because he’s also the voice of reason with everything that we do here at Midway. He’s worked state flags here, was an RDC, and was a Navy band chief, and he’s also this ridiculous tenor vocalist. They don’t exist; he’s one in a million.”
Miller, a tenor opera singer, also performed with the Florentine Opera Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for about six years.
“His voice will always be in the graduation recordings and I don’t think we’ll ever change that. The rest of us are always kind of tense due to our jobs are and he’s our one cooling mechanism, always calm,” Barbee said referring to the staff of 12.
While the pandemic silenced the drill hall for 17 months, Miller stayed occupied with administrative duties until it was time to resume the ceremony performances. He also realized he needed to make adjustments with the choir that was previously integrated, but now has restrictions in place for the safety and wellbeing of recruits in training.
Previously, during the screening process for new recruits to determine their musical ability, Miller would ask what part they sing (soprano, alto, tenor, and base) and if they were unsure, he have them sing for him so he knew how to arrange them from a choir director’s perspective and know what part they could sing.
However, with the onset of COVID, Miller had to make arrangement changes to accommodate the non-integrated divisions.
The choir performs three songs during the ceremony: the national anthem, “Eternal Father,” and “I Am America,” which also includes a portion of “American the Beautiful” within it.
“When the choir really nails it, I’m so proud for them. I tell them over and over, only you can go out there and perform this; I cannot sing this for you. I’ll do anything I can think of to prepare you for this, but it’s your job not to freak out when you get out there in front of crowd,” Miller said, adding that their own graduation by far is the hardest, “because they can’t think of anything else but reuniting with their families and going on liberty.”
As Miller thinks about who will replace him, he offers sound advice about not planning “too big” in regards to new singing arrangements — something he learned quickly.
“The thing I did in the beginning was I wanted to go big thinking this would be awesome,” said Miller. “Then the recruits get sick, all get colds, you have some set back in training, and where you initially have this awesome choir in the first week, four weeks later you might have about eight people in the room. Start small, keep it simple and then build from that.”
As Miller wraps up his time in Great Lakes, he admits that while his retirement and move has been a long-term goal and they’ve enjoyed their time here, he knows it’s time to return home with his wife Peggy to Tennessee to be closer to their families.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a big of deal but’s it more emotional than I thought it would be as I am going to miss the Sailors and recruits,” Miller said of his departure. “Leading these recruits was like having your own kids, but they’ve been inspiring at the same time. You want to see them do well, perform well and be successful. Some have been more motivated than others and that can be frustrating, but it’s been so fulfilling to see them grow and change and turn out successful.”
Boot camp is approximately eight weeks and all enlistees into the U.S. Navy begin their careers at the command. Training includes physical fitness, seamanship, firearms, firefighting and shipboard damage control along with lessons in Navy heritage and core values, teamwork and discipline. More than 40,000 recruits train annually at the Navy’s only boot camp.
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