Forty-five years after he left it, Vietnam remains on Ron Milam’s mind every day.
Born on the Fourth of July in 1949, Milam enlisted in the Navy at 17 and served as a mechanic with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 7. The “Seadevils” were the Navy’s only dedicated combat search and rescue unit.
For the past 14 years, Milam has been the historian for HC-7, documenting through records and papers some 150 daring air rescue missions over North Vietnam for pilots and their families.
In 2013, he was honored for his work by the Naval Helicopter Association with the Mark Starr Pioneer Award. As a member of the Bitterroot Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, he was instrumental in design and construction of the Ravalli County Veterans Monument in Hamilton in 2011 and 2012.
Milam grew up in the Seattle area and came to Missoula after his Navy service to go to school. Even as he was taking classes at Missoula Vo-Tech, he began working for an engineering company in town. He retired in 2009 after a 36-year career as a land surveyor.
Q: When and where were you in Vietnam?
A: From ’69 to mid-’70, a year and a half. We were a helicopter unit based out of Atsugi, Japan, and I was in Vietnam four different times, or off the coast. First, I was with a mine-sweeping unit with helicopters, then I went into a combat rescue unit off the coast of North Vietnam in Tonkin Gulf, picking up pilots. We were North SAR (search and rescue) off the coast of Haiphong Harbor.
Q: You worked on helicopters that rescued down pilots in North Vietnam. Did you actually see any enemy planes?
A: No. I was in DaNang a couple of times. We were orphans. Our nickname was “Orphans of the 7th Fleet” because we moved all the time. I was a mechanic, so I carried my tool box. There were 10 of us – two officers and eight enlisted guys. In two days, we were in five locations. We went from the Philippines to DaNang to an aircraft carrier to a DLG, which is a guided missile frigate, off the coast of North Vietnam. The next day, that ship left and we moved all of our stuff onto another ship. They called it “cross-decking.”
Q: Would you call your service exciting?
A: Yeah, it was for me. It was a job and I was a mechanic and flight deck director and ordnance man. So I took care of all the guns so, yeah, I took it as a real job. I’m changing the engine on the back of a ship in the middle of nowhere, with an engine being brought to you by another helicopter. They’d lower it down to you on a hoist ... and you’d spend the next couple of hours changing engines so the helicopter could fly.
Q: What happened after you returned to the states?
A: You separate from active duty, but you’re required to have a six-year commitment. So I then had three years of nonactive Reserve. I went to one Reserve meeting. They flew me from Fort Lewis, Washington, Army base up to Whidbey Island Naval Base in an old boxcar cargo plane and they had P-2 planes there. I looked around and all these little kids were running around working on airplanes. I said, ‘Nah, this ain’t for me.’ And I was a whole 21. I’d been overseas a year and a half, and that’s the only Reserve meeting I went to. I was the old guy watching all these clean-shaven little kids.
Q: You’ve documented 150 air rescue missions. What got you started?
A: Of all the combat missions our outfit did, from 1967 to ’73 ... we lost one guy in combat. It was our bookkeeper in a helicopter accident.
The transmission broke and it went in the water and he couldn’t get out. That was Feb. 20, 1970. Scott F. Moore from Texas. I knew him. That’s why I wear this (bracelet). I started trying to find his family in 2001. I found his sister and on my way to the first reunion I attended in 2002, I stopped in Houston and met her. People suggested collecting photographs, and that has turned into this obsession of the many thousands of documents and photos I’ve collected.
Q: What does your collection consist of today?
A. I’ve got 133 binders now. I’ve got touchable memorabilia, tons of stuff. The basement’s full. The house is full. I work on it every day.
Q: Why do you do it?
A: For one thing, we’re fighting to prove that we touched ground in Vietnam to get medical help. If you were blue-water Navy off the coast of Vietnam, you’re not getting any medical help unless you have a service-related injury. If you have diabetes and touched ground in Vietnam, you’re covered. If you have diabetes and were out at sea, nope.
Q: Why is that?
A: Agent Orange. I’m fortunate. I touched foot in DaNang several times. I’ve got a set of orders stamped “Vietnam” on the back, so I’m lucky I can prove I had my foot on the ground in Vietnam. If you have a set of orders, and we traveled in small groups sometimes – three, four, five, 10 guys – I collect these from guys and try to find the others in the same group and say, OK, I know this guy has had heart trouble. Hey, his name is on your set of orders, so (I contact him) and say, I’ve got you on a set of orders in DaNang. We win. It makes a world of difference in your medical help.
Q: What did Vietnam mean to you?
A: The biggest waste of life and money ever spent.
Q: Do you feel like we shouldn’t have been there?
A: Not at the time, but now, yes. You learn how political it was, and we didn’t gain anything. It was a waste. I’ve got this (bumper sticker): “In Memory of the 58,265 Lost Lives – Vietnam War 1956-1975.”
Q: How about emotionally? Does Vietnam still stir up things inside you?
A: I think the project helps, and building the monument (in Hamilton). A reward is when I do a show and the wife or a grandchild comes up and says, ”That’s what my dad did or that’s what my husband did?” They don’t know what went on, what we did, because we’d leave and they’d stay home and take care of the home front.