Like many veterans and former law enforcement officers, Bill Miles like to sit with his back to a wall.
He jokes that when cops go out to a restaurant together “it’s first come, first served” in terms of who gets to sit in this prized location. For them, it’s one small thing that makes them feel more safe. They aren’t afraid of the potential threats, they just want to see them coming and be ready when they hit.
In his jeans and boots and black cowboy hat, a person might not immediately pick Miles out as a veteran. That is, of course, unless his jeans hike up a bit and they spot the famous silhouette of a soldier kneeling for a fallen brother in arms that is sewn into the front of his boots. Although his clothing on this day wouldn’t show it, Miles is a self-described “flag waver.”
Veterans and the privilege he sees as the inherent gift of being an American citizen are passions for Miles, who is known to most as “Cowboy Bill” or just “Cowboy.”
“My whole background has been in public service,” Miles said. “Military, firefighter, EMT [Emergency Medical Technician], law enforcement. My dad was a fire chief and we were raised that we have the opportunity to serve America and that it is both an honor and a privilege to do so.”
Miles, who hails from Salt Rock, West Virginia, and moved to Montana in 1994, comes from a family dedicated to service. Among him and his brothers four branches of the American Armed Forces are represented. Jeff Miles served as a tank commander in the United States Army. Mark Miles served in the Navy. Don Miles was a Marine; he died in 2009 due to complications from his service. And Bill Miles served in the Air Force from 1989 to 1994. Much of what he did he prefers not to discuss and said simply that he “served in support” of Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
It has been 25 years since Bill Miles completed his military service, but he is still “riding for the brand” that he absorbed into his heart and mind.
Miles explained that in the Old West there was a code that men lived by that had to do with loyalty, with full commitment to the mission of the rancher he worked for, and it came with a sense of certainty about who a person could trust to protect their back.
“The ‘Thin Blue Line,’ that’s a brotherhood. The military, that’s a brotherhood. It’s about loyalty, integrity, faith and dedication to what you do,” Miles reflected. “Now my goal is to get veterans the help they need.”
He’s not afraid to use the term “therapy.” He has suffered through some of his experiences and now he’s able to see that same sort of suffering in others.
“My time in service changed me. I had some injuries that were significant, but became more so in December 2012.” Since 2014 he has been through 10 surgeries dealing with these issues.
“The hard part is coming home,” he confided. He described a military he loves, but he sees at least one major flaw in it. “I didn’t study for this (the reintegration into civilian life),” Miles said. “When you take men and women from different walks of life and from all over this nation, and train them to be physically fit and proficient in the use of firearms, they sign that dotted line knowing that they are signing a blank check that promises they are willing to pay the debt with their lives for the United States. Then they go into combat. They see things they will never be able to forget, and then they are sent home and asked to adjust to ‘normal’ life without ever getting to fully understand the pain in the heads and the pain in the hearts. Sometimes all they have to hold onto is the belief that their service was a privilege and the drive to instill in their children an understanding of the cost of freedom. For some, more help is needed.”
“I’ve never had a bad experience with the VA,” Miles noted. “They’ve been outrageously wonderful. When I was leaving a hospital in Denver one of the chaplains said to me, ‘Thank you for letting us serve you.’ That will touch your heart.
“But some veterans don’t feel comfortable or confident reaching out to the VA. There are a lot of veterans out there who are not in crisis, but they’ve been so withdrawn for so long that they don’t even know what resources are available to them,” said Miles. “Veterans have to look out for veterans because we get it. We understand each other. And we understand the cost of service.”
Sean Keller of the Kalispell Police Department said Miles is “probably the guy who cares more for veterans than anyone I know.
“He doesn’t do this as a once-a-year thing, it is always a part of him,” Keller observed. “He is always reaching out to veterans to get them the help they need, to let them know they have a friend. He reached out to me when I first met him. A big heart — that’s Bill in a nutshell.”
Miles aid he believes resources have become more readily available since 9/11, listing the Kalispell Vet Center, the Veterans Crisis Line and the Veterans Coalition of Northwest Montana among those resources.
“There is a veterans program at Samaritan House, a representative of the Disabled Vet Outreach Program at Flathead Job Service who will work with disabled veterans one-on-one, and at the Montana State Veterans Affairs Office, located at the Armory, there is Carolyn Collins, she is a godsend,” Miles said.
For Miles, his faith, the chance to connect with his fellow veterans and time out on the range are his primary means of dealing with his personal struggles. He spends a lot of time in central Montana at a ranch that belongs to a friend, just moving cows, putting up fence lines and writing poetry.
“That’s my therapy,” Miles said. “Out there in the middle of nowhere, with no cellphones. There are places where it is just you and God and nature.”
Miles has been helping out long enough that he knows most of the resources and who to contact.
On a recent trip to West Virginia, Miles received a text that read: “Cowboy, I’m having a bad day. Can we talk?” He reached out to his contacts and texted back exactly where this person should go and promised them that there was a friend waiting and ready to help.
“With us, it’s about trust. I want to show them I am genuine so that they can trust me to help get them the help they need.”
Within moments of talking to Miles, one can have no doubt that he has loved getting to serve. But he is highly aware of the price these life experiences exact from those who take up the call to serve.
“There are three things I want to leave you with,” he stressed. “One: There are resources available. Two: Everybody in this county is fighting some kind of battle — so you are not alone. Three: If Americans would look more through their hearts than their eyes, we could change this world. We are so blessed in this country.”
Service members who want to contact Miles may reach out to Brenda Ahearn at the Daily Inter Lake at 406-758-4435. She will get your information to him as quickly as possible.