March 15, 2003 - Statesman Journal: Ivory Coast RPCV Laura Miller is Oregon State Senate Sargeant at Arms

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Ivory Coast RPCV Laura Miller is Oregon State Senate Sargeant at Arms

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Senate sergeant has activist heart*

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Senate sergeant has activist heart

TIM LABARGE / Statesman Journal

Laura Miller, Senate Sergeant at Arms at the Capitol in Salem, stands at the Senate chambers after Monday morning’s session.

Work in the Capitol is calm compared to political turmoil in West Africa.

Statesman Journal
March 15, 2003

When 5-foot-1-inch humanitarian Laura Miller first stepped foot onto West African soil, thoughts of returning to her native Salem were last on her mind.

“I love the culture there, and I love the people,” the 25-year-old said in a soft voice that one would acquaint with the whispers of a new mother.

Miller had no choice but to return, however, when an attempted coup disrupted the once peaceful Ivory Coast in September, turning the area into a civil battlefield.

Searching for a temporary job in Salem before attending graduate school, Miller found work that was fitting for her situation and a little ironic. She left political chaos only to land a job where keeping order among politicians was her main duty.

Miller’s petite form and private yet warm demeanor makes her an unusual choice to the position as Sergeant at Arms in the Senate, which requires her to enforce the rules of the floor.

But these characteristics are what makes her perfect for the job, said Secretary of the Senate Judy Hall, who hired Miller.

“She’s subtle and discreet, and I knew she wouldn’t embarrass anyone when enforcing the rules,” Hall said.

Hall said the sergeant handles an array of duties that ranges from escorting visitors on the Senate floor to supervising distribution of important documents.

When people around the Capitol are asked to describe Miller, words like “nice” and “kind” crop up. It’s that kindness that first led Miller to her overseas adventure.

Along with her list of volunteer work, Miller is a born traveler, having visited 25 countries. She also speaks three foreign languages and holds two bachelor of arts degrees in Spanish and international studies.

Working for the humanitarian aid center Mercy Corps International in Portland, shortly after graduating from University of Oregon, Miller decided to leave her hometown, and did not expect to return for another two years.

Flying out on her 23rd birthday, in January 2000, Miller headed to the village of Nouamou in the Ivory Coast, to join members of the Peace Corps in bringing aid to the villagers.

Miller lived among the people and immersed herself in their culture, learning to communicate with the natives well enough to teach them how to sanitize their water.

She also took it upon herself to educate the children about safe sex.

Adapting to the area was difficult at first, Miller said.

“It was hard in the beginning because it took a while for the villagers to get used to me,” she said.

“They would say ‘you’re white –– you must have so much’ and they would test if I would give them anything.”

But after a few months, West Africa became a place Miller said she could one day call home and she hoped to stay past her two-year commitment to the Peace Corps.

Miller’s plans took a change, however, when her time in the country was cut a few months short.

On Sept. 19, 750 West African rebels launched an attack on three military bases. The rebels were livid that their three-year job contracts were about to expire and planned to retaliate.

Miller, who was visiting her boyfriend that night, was asleep in his home in the city of Abidjan, where one of the three attacked bases was located.

“I woke up to gunshots and no one really knew what was happening,” she said.

Peace Corps leaders told Miller not to return to the village. A week and a half later Miller was forced to evacuate.

She could not go back to the village for her belongings, nor did she have a chance to say goodbye to her friends.

“That was the hardest part,” she said. “I didn’t get a chance to explain to them why I had left.”

Back home, she still tries to adapt to a lifestyle she long had forgotten.

“I remember the first time I went to the grocery store after being back and it looked like all the fruits and vegetables were on steroids they were so big,” Miller said.

“Hot water, appliances, vacuum cleaners were just amazing to me; I think I’m still trying to get used to having all these luxuries at my fingertips.”

When asked whether she considers herself a humanitarian, Miller said she did, but did not see it as being such a big deal.

She said she is just following in her parents footsteps.

Her father, Fred, was a public servant in Oregon for almost 20 years. Miller’s mother, Janet, is a nurse at Salem Hospital.

The humbleness that Miller exudes is what Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said he notices the most about her.

“She has a remarkable background, but she doesn’t shout it to the heavens,” he said. “It’s nice to have someone with her experiences on the floor.”

Miller, who plans to study international policy at a graduate school in the East Coast, said it is nice to be working within Senate politics before she heads back to West Africa someday.

“It’s a jump,” said Miller, as she walked comfortably through the halls of the Senate Chamber, a place she knows all too well.

“But, it’s so nice to be in a democracy where you can’t get killed for your political and religious beliefs.”

Joanne Yuan can be reached at (503) 399-6663.
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