Teen Whose Dad Died in the Pentagon Says 9/11 'Is Part of Me But Doesn't Define Me'

"My father built his legacy, and now it's time for me to build mine," says Ronald Milam Jr.

Ronald Milam Jr. learned determination from a young age.

"9/11, it's a part of me — it's something that happened to me and my family but it does not define what I can be," Ronald Jr., 19, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "That's on me."

"The way I look at it is I'm doing exactly what every other kid that grew up in a single-parent home is doing. We're just trying to make good out of the situation we're dealt," he says. "So I keep going forward."

Ronald Jr.'s father, Ronald Milam Sr., was working as an Army major when he was killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, at age 33.

On that day, Ronald Jr.'s mother, Jacqueline Milam, then an Air Force captain, spoke to her husband 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.

Then tragedy struck, leaving Jacqueline, now 53 and a special education teacher, to raise Ronald Jr. and his sister MyeJoi, 21, on her own (She also has a young son, John Adam, now ten years old).

"I'm proud he served his country," Ronald Jr. says of his dad.

children of 9/11
Ronald Milam Jr. Victoria Stevens

"I learned about my father at a pretty young age. You'd look around and see kids — they have two parents, and you're just wondering where yours are," he recalls. "Gradually I learned that he passed away on 9/11. I mean, what can I do about it as a 10-year-old kid? Nothing. He was gone."

"I never asked anybody about exactly what happened, including my mom," Ronald Jr. continues. "I've learned some of the details, but I don't think I need to know more. I don't need closure on it. It's past. My father was a hardworking man, a family man, an overall good guy."

As he grew up, his mother taught him resilience. "Me and my mom — our bond is unbreakable," he says. "What I learned from her, when times are tough, you've got to keep going. When something is in her way, she goes right through it."

children of 9/11 in 2011
Ronald Milam Jr. in 2011. Nigel Parry/The Licensing Project

She, in turn, admires the young man he's become. "I'm proud of the fact he has a good heart and a great character," Jacqueline says. "I am proud of how strong and kind he is."

"His determination makes me smile," she adds. "And I nod my head at the same time because I know God has helped me pour everything good into him. I look at him sometimes and say to myself, 'He is going to be okay. He's one of the 'good ones.'"

Today, Ronald Jr. is in his sophomore year at the University of Texas, San Antonio, where he is studying biology.

"I want to be a physician's assistant. I'm making the grades now. I'm also hoping to try out for our football team, wide receiver," he says. "I've gotten more and more serious about my life. Because that's on me."

"I'm my dad's legacy, but I feel like I'm my own person as well," Ronald Jr. says. "He built his legacy, and I think it's time for me to build mine."

And Jacqueline is looking forward to his next steps: "I enjoyed all of the sporting events that we went to together, all of the games that I watch him play. I get a little sentimental because I don't get to experience that again, but then I perk up because I know that there will be new seasons, new joy, and new blessings that I have to look forward to in the future."

9/11 children
PEOPLE's cover. Victoria Stevens

For more on the children of 9/11, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here. And don't miss Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming exclusively on discovery+ beginning Sept. 7.

The teen will be featured in the upcoming documentary, Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11, streaming on discovery+ beginning Sept. 7.

The documentary will follow Ronald Jr., as well as Jamie Gartenberg Pila, Gabi Jacobs-Dick, Alexa Smagala — all of whom PEOPLE has been following in the 20 years since they lost their fathers — as they reflect on life's fragility, their intense bonds with their mothers for whom they are everything, and their own dreams for the future.

"It's pretty cool if people see us as signs of hope," says Ronald Jr. "We're just being ourselves."

9/11 children
(L-R) Jamie Gartenberg Pila, Gabi Jacobs-Dick, Alexa Smagala and Ronald Milam Jr. — the teenagers featured in Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11. Victoria Stevens

Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11 — which is executive produced by Julian P. Hobbs and Elli Hakami for Talos Films and Liz McNeil, Cynthia Sanz, and Dan Wakeford for PEOPLE and directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent — debuts on Tuesday, Sept. 7, streaming exclusively on discovery+.

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: The Children of 9/11 on PeopleTV.com or on the PeopleTV app.

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