"Every move I make, he's here," Ronald Jr. tells PEOPLE of his late father, who died in the Pentagon on 9/11

By Liz McNeil and Kathy Ehrich Dowd
Updated September 09, 2016 11:00 AM
Credit: Courtesy Jacqueline Milam

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Ronald Milam Jr. was 9 years old when he chose his basketball jersey number.

“I wear number 33 because that’s the age my dad was when he was killed on 9/11,” Ronald Jr. tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “When I’m wearing that number, it’s for him.”

The 14-year-old San Antonio high schooler is one of six teens profiled in this week’s PEOPLE who weren’t yet born when their fathers died in the 9/11 attacks.

Although Ronald feels his late father Ronald Sr.’s presence deeply, the circumstances surrounding his death at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, were rarely discussed at home.

“I never told them the story and they never asked,” says Jacqueline Milam, who was five months pregnant and also working at the Pentagon at the time. “It’s just sad, and I don’t like breaking down in front of my kids.”

For more on Ronald and other Children of 9/11, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

On that day, Jacqueline, then an Air Force captain, spoke to her husband, an Army major, for the last time just seven minutes before Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. The pair worked on opposite ends of the building and Ronald Sr. was headed into a meeting after their quick chat on what seemed like a typical Tuesday. “Something had hit the building,” she recalls. “And I thought it was construction at first. He said, ‘I’ll talk to you later.’ And that was it.”

After Jacqueline safely exited the building, she believed her husband of two years would make it out alive too.

“All I saw was smoke and chaos,” she says. “I thought, ‘If anybody’s gonna get out, [it’s] Ronald.’ I waited and waited and waited and it never happened.”

Faced with a new reality, Jacqueline found a welcome distraction in their 18-month-old daughter, Myejoi, and Ronald Jr.’s birth soon after.

“When I finally got to hold Ronald, I don’t know how to describe it. It was wonderful. It gave me something to look forward to because I knew I was going to have a little mini Ronald, for always,” she says. “It was like having a piece of my husband back.”

Ronald Jr. “looks like [his dad] and he’s a very determined kid,” says Jacqueline. “If you’re in a pinch and you need that go-to guy, he’s it. And that’s how his dad was.”

Myejoi, 16, who has no memories of her father, finds comfort in her brother’s similarities to him. “I think it’s cool that they share the same personality, because I didn’t really know him,” she says.

For Ronald Jr., it’s a source of pride. “I feel honored to have the same personality and to look like him,” he says. “Because I can live and do the stuff he wanted to do, but can’t.”

As he grows up, Ronald Jr. feels especially connected to his namesake when he plays basketball.

“I heard that my dad was good at what he did on the court,” he says, “I’m gonna try to be as good a player as he was, try to be better.”

“I wish I could have played with him but now I play for him,” says Ronald Jr. And when he does, he says, “I feel like my dad is watching me. Every move I make, he’s here.”