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Longtime aquatics director retires to Hawaii

Former collegiate swimmer leaves lasting legacy that ‘far exceeds any other installation in the Army’

Northwest Guardian

Published: 02:27PM July 12th, 2012
Longtime aquatics director retires to Hawaii

Bill Miller is retiring after serving for 30 years as JBLM Aquatics Director. “I always tell people I went to school to swim. That’s what got me my job,” Miller said. By Scott Hansen/Northwest Guardian

For 20 years Joint Base Lewis-McChord Aquatics Director Bill Miller lobbied for a complete overhaul of Kimbro Pool. The pool finally closed its doors last October, but when they reopen in September to a multi-million dollar renovated facility, complete with an indoor splash park, Miller won’t be there to see it. After 30 years in JBLM aquatics, Miller retires today.

“My wife remembered one of the last things her grandfather told her about how he wished he would have spent his last years traveling,” Miller, 57, said.

Two years ago Miller and his wife, Julie, bought a house in Hawaii. Julie has been living at their new home off and on for the past year while Bill finished out his 30th year at JBLM. Their previous residence in Tacoma is sold, the bags are packed and Miller is set to fly to his new home Saturday morning.

“Only because there are no flights out at night,” Bill said.

Miller leaves behind a legacy not only special to JBLM, but one that spreads Armywide. Miller’s career started out right out of high school when he started his first job as a lifeguard at Shoreline Park. He went on to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., where he was a three-time national swimmer. He majored in health education, but jokes he never used his degree. He returned to McChord in June 1982 as the assistant manager of the outdoor pool and later that year moved to Fort Lewis as a lifeguard. He worked a variety of positions within aquatics including water safety instructor, training instructor and pool manager before settling on aquatics director in 1991.

“I always tell people I went to school to swim,” Miller said. “That’s what got me my job. I got my job because of college, but it had nothing to do with my classes.”

During his time at JBLM Miller had many accomplishments including restarting the Fort Lewis swim team, renovating Soldiers Field House Pool, Kimbro Pool and Keeler Pool, and training 120,000 Soldiers and 100,000 ROTC Cadets in water survival and water safety. But his biggest accomplishment was introducing the Shallow Water Egress Trainer, also known as a dunker, to JBLM and subsequently to the Army.

In 2003 more than 200 troops drowned in Iraq when their vehicles turned over in water. A brigade rear detachment commander contacted Miller in 2004 to figure out a solution. Miller researched and visited the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island, where there were two helicopter SWETs ready to cut up for scrap the next day. Miller and JBLM swim instructor/trainer Bruce Antonowicz were the first of the JBLM staff to train on the SWETs. Miller and designers modified the two helicopter SWETs to fit Humvees and later Strykers to train JBLM Soldiers how to escape overturned vehicles under water.

“We looked at giving the Soldiers a chance to train to minimize their risk when they went over there,” Antonowicz said. “They would get through it and feel that ‘If I had to, I could do that.’”

Thousands of Soldiers have gone through the training as 12 more of the dunkers were sent to multiple installations. Miller received a Commander’s Award for Civilian Service for his work on the project.

During his three decades on JBLM Miller was part of other changes. When he first arrived in 1982, lap swimming, recreational swimming and military training were the only programs available at Kimbro Pool, the only pool on Fort Lewis. Keeler Pool still belonged to Madigan and Soldiers Field House Pool wasn’t built yet. Today there are numerous swim programs offered at all four pools, including the McChord outdoor pool.

“I might be biased, but I feel like he’s improved it to be the best aquatics program in the Army,” said Antonowicz, who has worked with Miller for 21 years. “With the amount of programming, the amount of classes we offer to Soldiers and Families, I think it far exceeds any other installation in the Army.”

When Miller became the aquatics director he went from training Soldiers, children and adults how to swim to handling paperwork and managing staff. The close-knit staff is what Miller will miss the most.

“I’m disconnected right now being the supervisor and I don’t really get to interact with the Soldiers anymore,” he said. “The only people I’m not disconnected (from) is my staff.”

Leading up to his departure date Miller is already living the aloha spirit, communicating that “things are good” with the Hawaiian shaka hand signal, the thumb and pinky salute. Miller looks forward to the scuba diving, snorkeling and swimming in the ocean that will be part of his new lifestyle. The couple has already planted 1,000 flowers on their property and he is also excited for the thousands more they plan to add to them. They decided not to invest in a television, but rather in wide-brimmed hats.

“I just need a wide-brimmed hat for the sun and the rain,” Miller said. “When it’s raining here it’s 40 (degrees). When it’s raining there it’s 80. I just need a wide-brimmed hat to get out there and garden.”