Program Takes Off : 35-Year Air Force Vet Gets Back in Uniform to Lead ROTC Unit

Times Staff Writer

It takes quite a pilot to fly military missions for 30 years over such places as Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Europe, and then land, minus a plane, in La Crescenta, miles from the closest airport.

Robert Millhaem, retired Air Force colonel, is such a pilot.

Millhaem, after navigating his way through a 35-year Air Force career and then a brief retirement, touched down at Crescenta Valley High School last July as commander of the school’s new Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.

It’s a new sort of mission for Millhaem, who began his aviation career at age 10 when he handed over $3 for his first flying lesson and later went on to fly Vietnam missions and earn a variety of Air Force commands. He last served as vice commander of the U.S. 7th Air Division in West Germany.


His retirement was automatic in 1985, when he reached the Air Force’s limit of 35 years on active duty.

Gone is the thrill of daily jet flights, the bustle of the air base and the fraternity of pilots. They’ve been replaced by the wide-eyed interest of teen-agers and the camaraderie of the faculty lunchroom.

But the tall, silver-haired Millhaem, who earlier in his career turned down offers to fly commercial jets because “the idea of flying from Chicago to Boston, Boston to Chicago, seemed awfully dull,” said he harbors no longing for the old days and welcomes the challenge of his new duties.

Choosing his words with the caution befitting a commander who now answers to a principal, he said: “This sounded like an intriguing opportunity to start this organization at the ground level. Each day is a new challenge; I look forward to it with a great deal of enthusiasm.”


No Real Airplanes

The challenge is to keep his fledgling air corps of 47 students excited when the only airplanes in town are made of plastic and hang from the ceiling of Room 823A, ROTC headquarters. It’s a task that “requires a lot of research,” Millhaem said. “I spend a lot of time in the library looking for anecdotes and things that will make the class interesting, so it doesn’t become humdrum.”

When he delivered a recent lecture on the role that zeppelins played in aviation history--"they’re the last of the dinosaurs,” he said--that meant playing a tape of the famous eyewitness account of the 1937 crash of the Hindenburg.

His strategy seemed to work. His students listened intently for the entire hour, interrupting to ask such things as how dirigible pilots managed to perform at high altitudes without oxygen. One student raised his hand to point out to the colonel the exact difference in size between a large zeppelin and a modern aircraft carrier.

Millhaem was hardly surprised. “The students are interested. I think it’s an interest both in general aviation, which is a $58-billion business, and the military aspect. They’ve all seen ‘Top Gun’ and ‘The Right Stuff.’ ”

It’s a level of interest that has generated a heavy demand for Air Force Junior ROTC programs. Millhaem’s

Crescenta Valley unit is one of only 23 in California. Nationwide there are 308 units.

“We’ve expanded by 30 units in the last three years,” said Kenneth Daly, who oversees the program for the Air Force. According to Daly, the cadet population (high school students are referred to as cadets) is now 46,000. It has grown so quickly that because of “fiscal constraints,” he has had to postpone further expansion until 1991.


“We currently have 98 high schools on our waiting list, waiting for a unit to close somewhere else,” he said.

Popular Programs

School officials say that among students, the programs have become popular for a variety of reasons. They cite a national shift back to “more traditional values” and an intense interest in high technology. They also mention the passage of time.

Millhaem flew his final mission in Vietnam several years before any of his students were born. He says the names of well-known battles in the war mean about as much to his students “as chop suey.”

But he said that doesn’t really bother him because he is confident that students will pick up that knowledge later.

“More interesting is the 11th of November,” he said. “When I refer to that as Armistice Day, my students look at me with absolute blank stares. I’ve had to explain to them that the 11th minute of the 11th day of the 11th hour of the 11th month signaled the armistice of World War I. To them, it’s just Veterans Day.”

The program also has become increasingly popular among school administrators. In exchange for classroom space, storage and drill areas, and a minimum of about 100 students a year, administrators get a program designed to teach students aviation history and the science of flight.

Drill in Uniform


Though students wear their Air Force uniforms once a week, on drill day, the military component of the program is minimal. The course is an elective, and unlike the college ROTC program, students are not in the military and are under no obligation to join when they graduate.

“We have found that for many kids, this is really an excellent program,” said Donald Empey, deputy superintendent of instruction for the Glendale school district, who helped secure an Air Force ROTC unit for Crescenta Valley. “It has a good curriculum, grounded in science, and it has a lot of good content in geography and in helping to develop leadership skills and discipline,” he said.

It’s also something of a bargain. The Air Force supplies student uniforms and text books, and most of the salary for the retired officer and retired noncommissioned officer who run each unit.

The Air Force also supplies each school with a list of retired officers whom it deems qualified to teach the course, and then gives 10 days of teacher training to those selected to fill posts.

Back to Uniforms

For Millhaem, the opening at Crescenta Valley meant shedding the civilian clothes he had started to wear in his first post-retirement venture as a business consultant in Washington.

He found it wasn’t so bad to be back in uniform.

“At least I don’t have to worry about the color of my socks or necktie,” he said.

Scrapping a consulting job itself was easy, too, for a man who has made even bigger sacrifices in life to be near a thing he loved.

“I guess I first got interested in airplanes on Sunday mornings, when I would go out to the airport with my father, and I would crawl around the airplanes and talk to mechanics and pilots and maybe get a ride,” he said.

“I suppose I lost a lot of communication with the Lord in the early days of my life for all the Sundays I spent at the airport.”