Texas Tech History Professor Honored for Teaching Excellence
Ron Milam spent decades trying to forget Vietnam. In the classroom, he found a reason to remember and a career worthy of the Texas Tech University System's highest faculty honor.
Ron Milam served one year in the Vietnam War as a U.S. Army second lieutenant.
He saw and participated in the terrible things that happen during war, then came home and tried to bury the memories while working a few decades in the oil and gas business in Houston.
But Milam — like so many of the estimated 7.4 million Vietnam War veterans — never completely covered up those memories.
Decades later, Vietnam has become his life.
Now he teaches a popular Texas Tech history class on the war, and serves as director of the university’s Institute for Peace & Conflict. He is also a Fulbright Scholar and nationally recognized author and expert on the war, a reputation that earned him the opportunity to help write the story of our nation’s wars for the Education Center at the Wall in Washington — one of only eight American scholars invited to do so.
“Teaching awards are because some students got something out of what you did, and that means a lot.”
In honor of his career of achievement, Milam was awarded the Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Teaching Award — the most prestigious honor given to faculty members throughout the Texas Tech University System.
He received $5,000 and a medallion for his excellence, funded by annual membership gifts to the Chancellor’s Council — a giving society supporting the priorities of Chancellor Robert Duncan that impacts student lives through scholarships, recognizes faculty achievement and encourages excellence across all four system universities.
“All of what I do now is because of Vietnam. It made me the person I am today — positive and negative,” said Milam.
“I see my job as creating the next generation of Vietnam War scholars,” he said, to tell the complete story of the bloody, deadly and divisive war that cost close to 60,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese lives.
Making a living while trying to forget
After Vietnam, Milam worked his way up in the energy business to become senior vice president of the biggest independent oil and gas company.
“I was paid pretty well, but something was missing in my life,” he said.
Milam would go skiing in Taos, New Mexico, and pass a sign for a Vietnam War memorial in nearby Angel Fire.
His wife suggested visiting it, but for a long time, he said no.
Eventually he conceded. It was a life-changing decision.
“I fell in love with the place, bought a cabin and we met the founder who lost his son in 1968. He talked me into quitting my job at 53, and I went back to school,” he said.
Milam took a course on the Vietnam War at the University of Houston.
It was a transformative experience.
“I was shocked how they taught the war — almost as if none of us who did it were there. It was just about Washington, Saigon and Hanoi,” he said. “There was a place for research on the war on the ground — the war that I experienced.”
Five years later he earned his doctorate and defended his dissertation — “Not A Gentleman’s War” — which became a book.
Milam applied for about 50 jobs even though he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He had started teaching at community colleges and enjoyed it.
On the day of his graduation, he got a call from the Texas Tech history department, offering a visiting professor job over the phone.
“I said, ‘Excuse me one minute,’ and I looked at my wife and said, ‘Did we apply for a job at Texas Tech?’” he said.
A war students have heard about
Milam came to Lubbock on a one-year appointment, but during that year, the university offered a more permanent Vietnam War-era teaching position.
He got the job, and now, his junior-level class on the Vietnam War is arguably the most popular course taught in the university’s history department.
“Sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” he said.
He follows the quip with a more serious reason: for many of the students this was grandpa’s war.
When Milam started teaching the class it was dad’s war — or an uncle.
“About 50 percent of the hands go up when I ask for a family connection,” Milam said, adding he believes a higher number of volunteers came from West Texas than other parts of the country.
And interest is growing.
Milam generally has 70 to 80 students in the class, but during the spring 2018 semester he had 140.
“It’s the best class I’ve had. They were engaged. They asked questions,” he said.
One of his students was an engineering — not history — student. Milam asked why he took the course.
“‘I heard about you from someone who took the course before, and it was really cool the guy teaching the class had been there,’” Milam said, recounting the student’s response. “And that meant a lot to me.”
Milam is honored by the Chancellor’s Council award.
The recognition was even more special because seven of his graduate students — including some international students — were there when it was presented by the chancellor.
“Teaching awards are because some students got something out of what you did and that means a lot,” he said.
The Vietnam veteran-turned oil industry executive-turned professor also gets something out of teaching.
“I love being around students and seeing the reaction. I like to watch them respond,” Milam said.
Teaching in Southeast Asia
Milam also teaches about Vietnam internationally — in Southeast Asia — as part of what has been a life-changing study abroad experience for many students.
He’s made 13 trips.
Each class has space for ten students. Nineteen applied for the most recent trip.
The reason for the small class size is more pragmatic than pedagogical.
“The roads are too small for a big bus,” he said.
“We visit nine universities, tons of museums, all of the big, famous battle places like Khe Sanh and the DMZ. We also go to Hanoi and visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum,” said Milam of the 28-day visit.
Students get the cultural experience of being around Vietnamese students.
“Vietnam is not a war, but a country that just happened to have…a short war with America,” Milam said.
He’s taken 62 students in all, and their lives have changed.
“The most pronounced one…I had a student who didn’t know she wanted to do with her life. She thought she might want to go to law school. We got her into Cambodia and to the killing fields and told that story of the genocide that occurred there,” he said.
The young woman went to a law school in New England, which had a specialty in genocidal law.
She worked for the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations before joining a relief organization.
Another student is now a senior attorney in Austin with Child Protective Services. Yet another teaches about Vietnam at The University of Texas at Arlington.
Vietnamese students come to Texas Tech
Today, Milam has three graduate students in Lubbock from Vietnam.
“I never would have expected that,” he said.
Two of the students are from Hanoi, and one is from Saigon.
“Their families fought against each other and fought against me,” he said.
One young woman’s father is a “big shot” in the communist party, and Milam wondered why he’d send his daughter to the U.S. to “be taught by someone like me, a guy who was over there trying to kill your people.”
The answer, Milam said, is “they are more over [the war] than we are here.”
When he taught in Vietnam as a Fulbright Scholar, he was challenged to discuss a war that caused considerable damage to the country and families of his students.
He was pleased to see how understanding the Vietnamese people were about his role in the war and how they wanted to learn from his expertise.
The war and its aftermath
Milam volunteered for the Army because he knew he’d get drafted. It also put him on track to be an officer.
After two years, he was sent to Vietnam.
Milam served there in 1971, as a mobile advisory team leader, when much of the American fighting forces had returned to the U.S.
His group was sent to a town in the Central Highlands, working as an infantry advisor to the tribal Montagnards, training them to defend their town.
“I thought they were terrific soldiers,” he said.
Milam felt his team successfully did their job, but the resulting death and destruction was hard to live with.
Then he came home to a country that reviled Vietnam veterans.
He didn’t want people to know he was in Vietnam. He would wonder why he chose to serve and others didn’t. And when people found out he was there, it didn’t help they’d ask him why he went.
So he didn’t talk about it — or the nightmares that persisted.
But his work has helped his own healing.
Milam still has dreams about the war, but they’re different, better than before.
“It’s almost as if I’m giving back what I took before,” he said.
For him, the importance of Vietnam is that it represents one of the first times Americans started to mistrust their government.
“That has stayed with us. The fact that we started to question our government is a good thing,” Milam said. “It’s just too bad it took that kind of a war to bring that forward.”
When Milam came to Lubbock, Jim Reckner was building the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University with a goal of creating the national museum about the war.
Milam got involved and is in charge of what is now called the Institute for Peace & Conflict. It houses the world’s largest non-governmental archive on the Vietnam War — 28 million pages of information.
“People come from all over the world to study and research the Vietnam War,” said Milam.
“All of what I do now is because of Vietnam. It made me the person I am today…”
The institute pulls together Texas Tech’s world renowned Vietnam Center & Archive, the graduate certificate in strategic studies directed by Col. Dave Lewis, the Army and Air Force ROTC programs and the newly created Archive of Modern American Warfare, which deals with all wars since 1975, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’ve always said if you want to do research on the Vietnam War, this is the place to come,” said Milam. “You get to walk across the street to the largest Vietnam War archive in the world. But now, it goes even further than that because we have all these other academic pieces as part of this umbrella.
“Part of our focus is to be the place to come to study issues associated with terrorism, insurgency and counterinsurgency. Both Col. Lewis and myself teach courses in that; now we have a place to actually do the research and bring it home.”
It’s part of the broader impact Milam hopes his experiences in Southeast Asia can make.
“It’s not just about Vietnam.”