Indiana State University Newsroom

Soldier-scholar battles to help his fellow veterans

May 8, 2015

When Zak Milam crosses the stage at Hulman Center Saturday, his graduation from Indiana State University will have been 20 years in the making. But the two decades that have passed since he finished high school were years full of learning -- lessons he regularly shares with Sycamores ... and hopes to share with his fellow war veterans.

"I've been waiting 20 years to walk across the stage. My mom's coming up for it," he said. "I've been waiting this long, and it's been a journey. I don't have any regrets."

May is also the birth month of his son, Jackson. He'll be 3 this year.

"He's the drive behind me. I'm almost 40, so it's not about me, it's about securing his future," he said. "Your priorities change when you have a child."

Milam of Paris, Ill., joined the U.S. Army in 2006 -- long after the swell of patriotism that prompted many young men and women to enlist after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was also 29 -- much older and worldly than his idealistic enlisted comrades.

"I knew signing up I was going to be deployed. It wasn't if, it was when," he said. "I really wasn't worried about it. By the time I got over there, I was 30 -- so I had 30 years. It was just a challenge, to see what it was all about."

Even though he had a good job at a well-run company for 10 years, Milam was restless and looking for a change of scenery from Texas, where he grew up. He also wanted to be near his kid brother, who had just graduated from basic training in the Marines.

"I was trying to be over there at the same time as him. At least then he'd have someone over there," Milam said.

He admits the scenario was "a mother's nightmare," having two sons on active duty.

"Well, it didn't end up working out that way," Milam said. "He got hurt in training, so he got medically discharged -- so he was getting out, and I was moving full steam ahead."

As Milam was finalizing paperwork and getting his equipment issued to him, the thought occurred to him that if he'd just listened to his father, who tried to get Milam to join the Air Force in high school, he'd be rolling toward military retirement, rather than just starting.

"I was kind of rebellious towards the end of my high school years," he said. "I was like, ‘You didn't serve, so why should I?' I never thought 11 years later I'd be signing up for the military."

Milam was part of George W. Bush's surge of 30,000 troops in 2007. Even with recruiters facing daunting numbers, Milam was turned down by the Air Force -- too old. And ironically, he had too many tattoos for Marines and Navy, military branches known for their body art. The Army, however, was willing to overlook his tattoos.

Stationed with the 632nd Movement Control Team, 106th transportation battalion sustainment brigade, 101st Airborne Division, Milam's military occupational specialty was transportation management coordinator -- or 88N -- and he was responsible for tracking soldiers and equipment by rail, sea and air.

"That's what the job is on paper, but when you get to Iraq, you might do your job, but nine times out of 10, you're doing something else. It's whatever meets the needs of the Army," he said.

Milam's first choice was infantry, but during the medical screening, they determined he was colorblind, which limited his job options. His unit left for Iraq in June 2007, with orders to stay 12 months or until "mission complete."

"They train you up and pump you full of patriotism and Toby Keith songs, but when you get over there, there's no training to actually prepare you for what you're going to see or do," he said. "At 30, I didn't know what to expect."

Milam hit it off with a first sergeant, who was about the same age as him. During a conversation one evening, Milam heard a series of bangs and booms and asked what was the noise.

"Those are mortars," the first sergeant said.

"Are they outgoing or incoming?" Milam asked.

"I don't know."

In a 30-minute conversation, there were 27 hits, Milam recalled.

"What did I get myself into? That was on a daily basis," he said. "There's bunkers strategically placed around the base. At first, you're looking for one. You're running, and you better hope no one gets in your way.

"But after that happens so many times, you just get tired of it. You get mad, especially if you're sitting on a post, you're just a sitting duck. So, you just have to hope the technology they have that shoots them down works. Most of the time it didn't."

Milam and his unit endured these near-daily attacks for 14 months. Even today, certain cell phone tones remind Milam, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), of the base's mortar warning system.

"I hear it at school. It's so intense. It just takes you back," he said.

Milam returned to the States to finish the rest of his enlistment with a Texas National Guard unit. His marriage was crumbling.

"It happens. You know being married and going into the military, a lot of times it doesn't work out," Milam said.

Milam also found few employment prospects.

"I had this military training, but a lot of it doesn't translate over. I was like, ‘Now what?' They got what they wanted from me, but what am I going to do now?" he said. "I was kind of lost. I didn't know what to do. I had my family, but there were times when I could have very well have been a statistic. I could have been homeless at any time. That's really scary to go from having a really good job for 10 years, then going into the military and then you think that when you get out, (employers) will say, ‘Oh yes, you were in the military, we'll hire you right away.' It doesn't work like that."

In fall 2009, Milam enrolled at a community college near Dallas.

"The education -- that's where it's at. You have to take advantage of that," he said. "It's a hard way to earn it, but it's worth it. If I wouldn't have joined the military, I wouldn't have gone to school."

Out of the military and adjusting to civilian life, Milam felt the daily life-threatening stresses of Iraq still haunting him. He started some mindfulness therapy and met with a group of multi-generational veterans.javplanet

"That's what helped me out and put it all in perspective. I realized then, OK yes, I do have problems, but I just came back," he said. "Some of these guys have been back 40-something years. It was heartbreaking.

It was so traumatic listening to the stories of what these guys went through - not to take away from anything any of the veterans go through now."

One of his peers only left his house for the group therapy sessions. He spent the rest of the time "bunkered up" in his room, emerging at night.

"These guys hadn't progressed over 30, 40 years. That's somebody's husband. That's somebody's grandpa that can't even leave the house," Milam said. "I told this Vietnam veteran - I just started crying because I have this guilt for how they're treated versus how they roll the red carpet out for us - I don't want to be you in 40 years. That's when I knew I had a problem."

Living in Texas, Milam says he felt "just thrown into" the huge Veterans Affairs office in Dallas. Again itching for a change of scenery, he returned to east-central Illinois, where he was born, and found a good therapist in Danville.

"She pushed and pushed and pushed for me to go to school," Milam said. "I kept saying, ‘Yeah, I'll do it next semester.' She kept pushing and pushing, and my son was born in 2012, so I said, ‘Now it's not just me anymore.'"

Driven to help his fellow veterans, Milam enrolled at Indiana State as a human development and family studies major.

"I love the major. It's so broad. There's so much you can do with it," he said. "It's from cradle to grave. It's a program that you learn about the lifespan -- your first day to your last day."

After completing coursework this summer, Milam plans to pursue a master's degree in social work.

"I'm pretty dead set that I want to work with veterans. I owe it to them, because when I came back, I didn't have that support," he said. "A lot of time, you're dealing with civilians, and they don't know. They follow this protocol, they know what they're supposed to do, but they don't know."

Because of his education at Indiana State, Milam says he'll be able to help the veteran and his or her family.

"This degree is focused on not only human development, but also family dynamics. Then you understand it's beyond the individual you're trying to help," he said. "What kind of resources does the family need? Because it's not just about the individual."

But long before Milam makes his mark in the professional world, he's been helping his Sycamore family.

"A lot of them have accepted me, and that's awesome to have young students who want to know your story. (They ask) how you got here, how was the military, do you recommend this, do you recommend that?" he said. "I try to give them as much advice as possible about the military. It's not for everyone."

One classmate was considering enlisting. He encouraged her to finish her degree and go in as an officer - or at least a higher ranked enlisted person, which pays more. "Utilize your education," he told her. "They need officers, they need leaders. Don't just go be another soldier. Don't waste your education."

Given a choice, join the Air Force, Coast Guard or Navy, he said. Milam recalls his days in Iraq - and its 115-degree heat - dressed in full gear and carrying his weapons, while the flyboys were walking around in shorts and their physical training clothes.

"The Army is the best recruiter for the Air Force," he said. "A lot of the younger students ask what branch I was in, and I tell them. Then, they're like, ‘What do you think of the Air Force?' If you can go into any branch, go into the Air Force. They have the best jobs, the best duty stations."

Milam respects his young classmates' drive to do something he didn't when he was their age.

"Anyone who goes from high school to college -- anyone who says, ‘I think I'll do four or five more years of school' -- I really admire them," he said. "They have so many great opportunities in front of them. They don't realize it yet."

Despite his affection for the students, his struggles with PTSD are still present. The fact that he's one of four male students graduating in his major -- of about 40 total -- doesn't help.

"They're all females ... and they all want to talk -- at the same time," he said.

During a recent class exercise, everyone was paired off to simulate married couples and had to make a paper chain to represent what they'd acquired during the relationship -- and then work out the terms of a divorce.

"There was so much talk, and it was so loud in there. It was a fun activity, but for me, it was nerve-wracking. I like order. I don't like loud noise," he said. "I get startled and there's a lot of commotion; sometimes it takes you back. So, I'll walk out of class ... because my anxiety is so high. So, I step out for a few minutes and go back in, but it's just like walking right back into the lion's den, because they haven't stopped (talking)."

After years of therapy with the doctor in Danville, Milam jokes it's the longest relationship he's had with a woman. "We really just clicked. I had seen a few other therapists before, but it just worked," he said.

Not living with her and only seeing each other once a month probably helps, he added with a laugh. As an alternative form of therapy, Milam also participates in the Indiana State chapter of Team River Runner (Health and Healing through Paddlesports).

"The therapy is ongoing. I've accepted I'll probably be going to therapy in some form for most of my life - in some aspect," he said. "Hopefully, at some point, I'll be on the other end of it." Carrying around these scars, one has to ask if he'd re-enlist again, knowing what he knows now.

"If I didn't have my son, I'd go back in a heartbeat. But I'm too old for them to beat up," he said. "It's not about hatred or violence. I have a lot of guilt. I don't feel like I did enough. I feel bad, because when I got out, there were all these younger soldiers who had longer contracts. To me, 14 months over there wasn't enough. I should have been over there multiple times."

While in the National Guard, Milam said he volunteered for three deployments.

"Let me go back. Don't send somebody's baby over there," he said. "I admire them for doing it, but cognitively, I don't think they're ready for that. No one's ever ready to go into a hostile military zone, but I think the older you are, I think you can handle the situation better."

Milam, a dean's list student, does continue to apply his military training -- only to his studies.

"I can almost guarantee you can look at any veteran's grade point average, and I would say it's above average -- the majority of the ones I've met are geared toward school," he said. "One day, you don't just say, ‘Forget about all that they taught me in the military.'"


Photos: -- Indiana State University student Zak Milam poses for a portrait. -- Indiana State University student Zak Milam poses for a portrait.

Writer and media contact: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or