Remembering the Heroes: 19

A Veteran’s Reflection

To many Conejo Valley students and parents, Veterans Day is a school holiday that brings a welcome break between Halloween and Thanksgiving. But to the almost 10,000 military veterans living in the area, November 11 has a much deeper significance—as a day to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism and service.

No one knows this better than Westlake Village resident John Milliken, a former Air Force C-23 and B-52 pilot. Milliken’s father, an Air Force B-24 pilot during WWII, had been shot down by the German Wehrmacht over Caen, France in October 1944. Milliken proudly recounts how his father, who was raised in Buffalo, New York and spoke fluent French and German, was captured by the Germans, then escaped and made his way through the German lines to the safety of the French Underground.

Milliken joined the Air Force in the spring of 1967 and, after officer and pilot training school, served two tours in Vietnam.

He recalls, “Although the Vietnam War was not a popular war, during my college years I happened to be one of those who believed in my government and I was for our involvement in Vietnam.”

First assigned to PACAF (Pacific Air Force) in January 1969, Milliken flew C-23s out of Phan Rang Air Base in central Vietnam. During his second tour, Milliken returned to Vietnam as a B-52 bomber pilot in the spring of 1972, flying bombing missions out of U-Tapao, Thailand on the South China Sea.

Milliken’s views about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam changed during his deployment after several harrowing experiences that shaped his feelings about the war. He survived a rocket and mortar attack on the Phan Rang Base that “destroyed millions of dollars of airplanes” and was attacked by MiG fighter planes while flying a top-secret mission over the Plain of Jars region of northern Laos. In both instances, “we were not allowed to retaliate” because of policies determined by politicians in the United States.

Milliken says, “My frustration was that I always had the impression that we were fighting with at least one hand tied behind our backs because we were letting the politicians make the policy, not the generals who knew what was going on.”

“I think I flew about 28 missions and I do recall that on 11 of them I had missiles shot against me. A B-52 is not very maneuverable, and fortunately, we never did get hit. I survived and got out of the Air Force in August 1972.”

In 1976, Milliken became a pilot for Western Airlines, which later became Delta. While at Delta, he met and married his wife Leslie, who is still a flight attendant for the airline. He and Leslie moved to Westlake Village in 1997, where they raised their son, Pierce, who is now a senior at Syracuse University.

After a 28-year career as an airline pilot, Milliken retired in 2004. “I had a wonderful career that got picked for me by the Vietnam War.”

Although his view of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam changed during his time there, Veterans Day is an important one for Milliken.

“For me, Veterans Day has significance because I’m a veteran, and this is a country that honors its veterans. I’m very happy that today’s veterans are treated with respect. In airports, when veterans walk by, people applaud. On airplanes, people applaud soldiers when they come on board in uniform.”

Milliken reflects, “We must be a much more civil society now. As a war veteran coming back from Vietnam, I was not treated with the respect we treat veterans today.” Milliken remembers going into a department store in Rome, New York, where, although he was first in line, he was told to step aside as other customers were served ahead of him.

He recalls, “We had soldiers who were beaten up in the streets because they were Vietnam veterans and it was such an unpopular war. It was not the soldiers’ fault—it was society not liking the war. For a lot of those soldiers who had experiences in Vietnam like me, it was not a friendly situation. We were not as civil a society as we are today.”

“I don’t talk a lot about it, but whenever people find out about my military experience, the first thing they always do is thank me. People seem to be much more appreciative today than they were then.”

Today, Milliken is known around the Conejo Valley more for his collection of beautifully restored antique cars than for his military service. As director of the Southern California region of the Classic Car Club of America, Milliken is “very involved in the local car scene.” He also stays active by swimming several miles a week and hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains with a local hiking group.

Milliken reflects, “I was 50 years old when I became a father, and my son is very much aware of what I went through. But my impression is that kids today are not as interested in history—they don’t seem to be too curious about it. And I think that’s kind of sad. Most of the kids today seem somewhat removed and willingly uninformed about our veterans’ experiences. And I think it’s a sad thing because a lot of veterans died for our country and I would hope they would embrace that.”

“So, I’m very much in favor of honoring our veterans who died for this country. I wasn’t a hero. The ones who didn’t come back were the heroes.”