Mark Miller's 3-year-old son Coy is fascinated with Popeye the Sailor Man. He recently sung the theme song to the cartoon, walked over to the refrigerator and popped some raw spinach into his mouth. Miller said Coy now eats spinach like some kids eat chips.
Not to be outdone by his older brother, 1-year-old Isaac gets into the role of Wimpy by munching on food while watching Popeye, Coy, wrestle with arch enemy Bluto, Miller, on the living room floor.
"I never realized how much laughter you can have in your life until you have two little boys," Miller said.
Miller, a resident of Newton County, came close to missing these precious moments of fatherhood. Three years ago, an IED exploded in a house where he and other U.S. soldiers were performing a mission in Iraq. Several soldiers with Miller died and others received serious injuries.
The explosion knocked Miller unconscious. He sustained severe head and back injuries. After being given a brief recovery period, the military sent Miller back out into the field, heavily medicated, to complete the last months of his 15-month deployment.
He returned home in September 2007 on 18 different kinds of medication. Doctors drained fluid from his brain and he received physical and occupational therapy. Miller said doctors wondered how he got through those last few months of duty with such severe injuries.
Miller had an answer.
"If I didn't have God helping me through this, I don't know what I'd do," Miller said. "It's awesome giving that burden to Him and He can take care of it for you."
Miller's path to fatherhood has been more like a crash course.
His wife Brittany became pregnant with their son Coy shortly before the military deployed Miller to Iraq. The week before he left, the couple learned they would have a boy.
"That was a really difficult time," Miller said of the departure overseas.
A dedicated wife, Brittany wrote to Miller two to three times a day during his deployment, updating him on the pregnancy and, after their son Coy's birth, describing her new life with baby. She also sent him video of Coy, along with countless pictures. The handwritten letters from Brittany number about 800.
"She was incredible," said Miller, adding that Brittany also sent care packages to him and fellow soldiers.
Miller met his son Coy, born Nov. 10, 2006, at age three weeks during a leave. He shared two weeks with the baby and his wife before returning back to Iraq.
Miller didn't see Coy or Brittany again until September 2007 upon returning home from his deployment. Brittany said he jumped right in to taking care of their then 10-month old baby.
"He really did good and tried his hardest and Coy took to Mark quickly," Brittany said. "He changed his first diaper in the parking lot of the gymnasium (where soldiers returned from duty). He totally jumped right in. He was very excited to be a dad."
Miller said transitioning into the role of father had its challenges. He needed to bond with his son, while recovering from his injuries and searching for employment.
"I always thought being a father was going to be easy but it's a matter of continually getting better," Miller said.
His memory weak from the head injury, Miller had to learn new ways of reminding himself of important things, namely repeating them to himself and writing them down.
Brittany pushed her husband to succeed.
"When I got back, a lot of my friends were in worse shape than I was. Brittany didn't baby me. She refused to let me fall into that situation," Miller said.
Armed with a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry from Georgia Southern University, Miller landed a job as an intake officer with the Newton Count Juvenile Court System, which he's held for more than two years. He also coordinates the REACH program which teaches at-risk kids the benefits of abstinence and tenants from the book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens."
"I just love working with the kids and seeing them fulfill their potential, whether it be in the court system or church, and working with the parents and helping them be the best they can and not be a statistic," said Miller, who also serves as a youth pastor at Greater Love Baptist Church in Newton County.
Miller said he is fortunate to be surrounded by strong Christians in his life including his wife, his pastor and his boss, and he draws inspiration from his siblings, especially brother Paul.
"God's just kind of put that covering over me to help me out," Miller said.
Brittany said her husband is a strong helpmate and an "awesome" father.
"The biggest thing is he loves the Lord and he instills that in his children. He's a perfect example of what a dad should be and what a man should be, more importantly," she said.
Miller said his experiences in war offered him a fresh perspective on life.
"We spend so much of our time letting the small things bother us. We need to push those small things aside and focus on building each other up because the little things will always happen throughout life and if you focus on those you'll miss the big picture," he said.
"The time you have with people you love is precious. I have a lot of my friends that didn't make it back from Iraq who would have worked on things like that and really realized the little arguments aren't worth it."
Beyond a church picnic, the Millers aren't quite sure what they're doing this Father's Day.
"It doesn't matter to me what I'm doing for Father's Day, as long as I'm spending time with my wife and kids. That's all I care about," Miller said.