“He’s squared away and very impressive.” – Capt. Michael Melhorn, Commander, Tennessee Highway Patrol, East Tennessee District
Being “squared away” in law enforcement and the military is a term that reflects exemplary, above-average service and is the highest of compliments. Capt. Melhorn’s words are about Tennessee Highway Patrol Trooper Sgt. Eric Miller of Troop A. He’s a nearly 12-year veteran of the THP and the recipient of a number of honors.
And it all started with an unexpected phone call. More about that later.
There is a chance you have seen this professional if you follow the University of Tennessee’s football Vols. He’s the THP trooper who escorts UT’s head football coach on and off the field at Neyland Stadium, on the Vol Walk and whenever the coach is out in public. He travels with the team and is always a presence on Fridays and Saturdays during game week.
He’s been at the side of Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and now Jeremy Pruitt. And obviously he’s gotten to know them all. Which coach does he like the best? “Next question” is all he says.
He’s been described as “stern-faced” and having “a chiseled face, clenched jaw and a military-like presence.” He’s 40. He and wife Miranda, a nurse at Park West Medical Center, have twin 9-year-old daughters – Riley and Hayden.
Here’s a snapshot of Miller’s professional life:
- Promoted to THP sergeant in December 2015
- Former U.S. Army Infantry Ranger, Special Operations, 1st Ranger Battalion, veteran of Afghanistan
- 2014 Colonel’s Achievement Award
- 2012 Knoxville District Trooper of the Year
- 2012-2015 DUI Trooper of the Year, East Tennessee
- 2011 Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hero Award
- B.S. in Emergency Services Management, Bethel University, 2017
- Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) Instructor
The football gig is one he enjoys and takes very seriously. As a senior at Oliver Springs High School he set records for rushing yards and scoring touchdowns, and his records still stand today. “That was a long time ago, years ago,” he says when reminded of those records. After high school he played one season at Tusculum College, and then he joined the Army Reserves with the 84th Engineering Battalion in Knoxville.
Three years later, in July 2001, he went on active duty with the 1st Ranger Battalion of Savannah, Ga., in the Special Operations Command and was part of a deployment to Afghanistan. After leaving the military in 2005, he worked for a worldwide security company and worked security assignments in and around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
When that job ended, he headed home for about two months before he was to leave for a security job in the Middle East. Neither his wife nor his mother wanted him to go.
At some point during the previous months he had applied to the Tennessee Highway Patrol but had never heard back from them. Fate stepped in as he, his wife and his mother were driving to McGhee Tyson Airport for his flight to the overseas assignment.
“I was driving along and my phone rang,” he recalls about a day in June 2007. “It was the highway patrol calling me. They offered me a job contingent on the interview, background checks and a physical. I turned the car around and headed home, and here I am, 12 years later. My wife and Mom started crying.”
On July 29, 2007, he began 19 weeks at the Highway Patrol Academy in Nashville, and on Dec. 7 he reported for work. His first eight years as a patrol trooper were in Loudon, Roane and Morgan counties. He was promoted to sergeant in December 2015 and assigned to Troop A for Knox and Union counties. He helps lead Troop A and spends an estimated 60 percent of his time on the road and 40 percent behind a desk.
One day in high school he met a trooper up close and personal. Older brother Todd was driving a little too fast between Clinton and Oak Ridge. “I think we were on Highway 62 and got pulled over,” Miller recalls. “That trooper’s presence and professionalism left a lasting impression on me. He didn’t give Todd a citation but a really stern lecture, and I paid attention. It resonated with me. I’ve never forgotten it, and that’s what got me interested in the THP.”
Miller’s appearance today and how he carries himself reflect his deep appreciation for the “presence and professionalism” part of the job. “I love what I do. It’s stressful at times, but I never dread coming to work. I have no regrets. It’s not about the money. What’s that old saying – if you love what you do, you’re never working.”
He thinks back to the morning of May 2, 2014, a morning he says “is seared in my memory.” He began following a car on I-75 northbound in Loudon County. “It was around mile marker 68,” he says. He pulled the car over and with the driver were two passengers. He suspected the driver was driving under the influence. His instincts told him he needed to search the car and needed backup for a possible criminal investigation.
“I got the guy’s driver’s license and registration and was standing by my front right bumper with the driver. I knew my backup was close to arriving, and then this guy takes off and runs and jumps in his car,” Miller says. “I tried to stop him and I was worried about that and the traffic flying by me in the left lane. This guy gets the car in gear and I’m holding on to him through the window, and then he starts dragging me into the interstate with the car.” That’s when Miller fired four times at the back of the car, trying to stop it.
After that Miller realized, unbeknownst to him while this was playing out, that a trucker saw what was happening and stopped his big rig in the right lane of I-75 short of the cruiser to block traffic from driving directly next to Miller and his patrol car. “That trucker may have saved my life,” he remembers. “We tried to find out who he was and honor and thank him, but we never found him.”
The driver and his passengers were arrested a short time later at a convenience store in Philadelphia, Tenn.
“I still like to patrol and I still enjoy getting DUI drivers off the road,” he says. “It used to be just alcohol, but today most of the DUIs we stop are for poly-drug use – a mixture of alcohol and drugs.” He, of course, knows the telltale signs used to identify suspected DUI drivers – excessive speed, multiple lane changes, and swerving and not being able to drive in one lane.
He is one of a select group of troopers who have earned “DRE” certification. He is a Drug Recognition Expert graduate of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Drug Evaluation and Classification program. That means he is qualified to assess drivers and determine what types of drugs they are using, short of a blood test.
His is a job and profession chock full of pressures and stresses. How does he deal with those? “I stay active and lift weights almost daily, and I run at least three days a week and get outside, and we enjoy camping,” he says. “But when I walk in the door and see the twins and my wife … that’s when I really relax.”
Melhorn had a little more to say about Miller: “I think it’s imperative to emulate well-rounded supervisors throughout one’s career, and Sgt. Miller has become one of those leaders our troopers want to be. Leading by example is one of Sgt. Miller’s strongest attributes.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, please email Tom King or call him at (865) 659-3562.