Vet opens up to his family about war
By Shelley Jones Post-Tribune correspondent August 23, 2014 11:16AM
Howard Milam in Vietnam, 1969 | Photo provided
Updated: August 25, 2014 2:03AM
VALPARAISO — It turns out life in a rural farming community is great training for war.
First, there’s that old-fashioned we-don’t-lock-our-doors trust among neighbors that prepares a young man to put that kind of faith in his comrades. And then there’s the dynamite.
Farmers use a lot of dynamite. Or at least they did in 1950s and ‘60s Kingsbury, Indiana, home to the now defunct ordnance plant that was hopping during World War II.
Howard Milam grew up in the tiny town of 190 folks six miles south of LaPorte just across the street from the garage.
“If you wanted a stump out you ran to the LaPorte Co-Op, bought a case of dynamite and blew your stumps out,” Milam said.
Knowledge from the agrarian life made Milam a prime candidate for demolition duty during the Vietnam War. “It was an extra $65 a month and that was a lot of money. We needed the money,” he said, recalling being 20 years old with his new bride, Bonnie.
They married after a year-and-a-half of dating on July 19, 1969, right before he began his one-year tour in Vietnam, after being drafted into the Army. Forty-five years later they remain one of those couples that unabashedly admits they prefer to do everything together, even grocery shopping, and embarrass their children and grandkids with their displays of affection.
However, the war settled in with them from the very beginning, even when it couldn’t bear mentioning. “When I gave those vows I didn’t realize they would kick in that quickly,” Bonnie Milam said of the promises to take the bad with the good. “It changes people. Not the same person who left came back.”
The two wrote each other daily, even though the letters often arrived in huge piles only every six weeks. Milam served in the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, attached to the 1st Division, otherwise known as “Big Red 1.” He drove a tank for eight months and was then transferred to the 25th Infantry Division where he was switched to leading a perimeter squad on night watch for three months and then mail runs for his final month, “because I was considered a short-timer,” he said.
“That really depended upon your captain. I would run into people who were under 30 days (left in their one-year tour) sitting on top of a tank,” Milam said. “Some captains would say, ‘You’ve made it 11 months, we’re going to try to keep you alive’.”
He made it back, though not entirely unscathed. Milam was denied a Purple Heart for a head injury received when a tank he was driving hit a mine. The army doctor who recommended him was baffled that it was denied on the technicality that the injury was considered to be from the falling hatch and not the explosion that caused the hatch to fall. Milam was honored with two Bronze Stars, however.
Milam has been arriving at some major milestones this year. On March 28, he retired from Brown Tire in Valparaiso after 25 years as the service manager. Two days later he celebrated his birthday and decided this retirement phase was a good time to acquaint his family with his war past.
“When I turned 65, I sat my wife and two kids down and asked them if they wanted to know anything about Vietnam, even some of the harsher realities,” Howard Milam said. “They weren’t shocked, but they were upset that kids that age had to go through that. They know some of the worst things that happened to me and they’re OK with that.”
It is that latent openness that has helped close the last communication gap for this happy couple.
“We were close in most ways, but that was the barrier,” Bonnie said of Howard’s unwillingness to speak of his war experiences. “But I also knew that pushing him wouldn’t help. There was that one little section of his life that was closed off and I couldn’t fix it. And I’m a fixer.
“I look back and I can see why sometimes it is hard for veterans to keep a relationship going,” she said.