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Army ROTC Cadet Finds Second Family
by Sarah Windmueller, U.S. Army Cadet Command
March 18, 2024

When nine-year-old Colette “Miracle” Milak saw a pair of pink ballet slippers in Goodwill, she knew she had to have them.

After fleeing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with her family and relocating to Uganda before immigrating to Clarkson, Georgia ... the visions of beautiful ballerinas dressed in pink tutus floating across her television fascinated Milak.

She bought the shoes and proudly wore them to school the next day only to be made fun of by her peers. Milak took off the shoes and threw them away.

Fast forward to her 5th grade year, Milak became captivated with soccer, a sport that, culturally, Congolese women don’t play.

The sport welcomed her with open arms, and her cleats became a gateway to escape from the bullying of her peers and strict expectations of family.

Now, a college freshman and Army ROTC Cadet at Georgia Military College (GMC), Milak laces up Army boots and marches with a team of Cadets and Cadre that support and inspire her to step out of her comfort zone and rise up as a leader.

March 15, 2024 - When Colette Milak, an Army ROTC cadet at Georgia Military College, was 9 years old ... her family immigrated to the United States, fleeing a war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from Georgia Military College courtesy photo.)
March 15, 2024 - When Colette Milak, an Army ROTC cadet at Georgia Military College, was 9 years old ... her family immigrated to the United States, fleeing a war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from Georgia Military College courtesy photo.)

“[GMC’s] motto is, ‘Start here, go anywhere,’ and I really like that because it doesn’t matter where you start, it matters where you end up,” Milak said. “You can always make a different route, make a different path for yourself.”

**********

Milak bears her life experiences with a quiet countenance that has become a distinguishing attribute.

The ninth child in a family of 12, Milak’s family was forced to flee the DRC in 2007 because of civil war when she was just four-years-old.

"My family had a certain standing in the community and for our safety, my parents decided to relocate us,” Milak said.

The family fled east to Uganda where they lived for the next five years while completing their immigration paperwork.

Milak remembers life during that time as being “carefree” compared to what they’d just experienced in their home country.

“Most of our days were us waking up early in the morning and going to the farm [we owned]. We’d have lunch at noon and come back at five to prepare for the next day,” Milak recalls.

“I was mostly tasked with watching the kids, or sometimes my mom would let me hold the tools as she was going and doing her thing.”

With the help of a case worker, the Milak family got their immigration papers approved after five years ... much faster than average for a family of 12.

In 2012 the family packed up what belongings they had and moved across the Atlantic Ocean to Georgia.

No one in the family spoke English.

“Going into school was hard and kids are mean,” she recalls. “When I first got here, I didn’t really know how to dress, and the language was hard to speak.”

“They would pick on me and ask, ‘Why does she look like that?’ I didn’t have the proper shoes. I tried hard to fit in, but my parents didn’t understand, so I was kind of stuck in between two worlds.”

Isolated by the experiences of her previous life in Africa and torn between the culture of her family and that of their new life in America, Milak craved a connection of inclusivity and acceptance.

During recess, Milak noticed a group of girls playing soccer.

“One day at recess, the ball rolled over to me and I kicked it back,” she said.

The players encouraged Milak to join them on the field where she quickly fell in love with the sport and the escape it offered from family expectations, peer judgment, and the challenge of living and growing in two different cultures.

“On the field, nobody could bully me, it was a safe environment and the coaches there were very welcoming,” Milak said.

“Everyone was there just to play soccer, no one really cared who you were or what you did, we were just there to play soccer and have fun.”

Until 8th grade, Milak only played the sport at recess, but once coaches took notice of her ability, she was allowed to play in high school.

“Just being on the soccer field, I feel like there’s nothing else in the world,” she said. “Anytime I’m stressed out, I just pick up my ball and I go kick it around for a little bit.”

As Milak got older and lived more of her life in America than in Africa, she found herself continually torn between the American way of life and the culture her family left behind in the Congo.

"In high school, I started to question if the life my parents wanted for me was the road I wanted to take,” she said.

Following high school, Milak looked to create her own path.

"I looked for something where I could separate myself from the expectations of my parents and set myself on a course for success,” Milak said.

Milak was also inspired to join the Army through her high school Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) instructor.

“My ROTC instructor was a Major in the Air Force, and he would always tell us how you can’t be in the back you have to want to lead in the front,” she said.

“Having him tell stories of how he grew up in a toxic household, and how that was something he would never want to be or see, and he wanted to make a change. It inspired me and made me want to do something.”

Milak joined the National Guard as a medic and set out to carve her own path in life. She shipped off to Basic and Advanced Individual Training with the intention of playing soccer at and attending GMC where she could explore the possibilities the junior military college and two-year Early Commissioning Program (ECP) offered.

“I’m very determined, if I want something I’m going to go and get it,” Milak said. “I pick a goal and achieve it.”

While training as a medic at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Milak was introduced to Lana Miles.

Miles was also training as a medic. She, coincidentally, was also set to attend GMC after completing AIT.

A few awkward encounters later, the two hit it off and decided to be roommates – or “roomies” as they refer to each other – at GMC.

“I believe that she was definitely put in my life for a reason,” Miles said. “I prayed for a good friend, someone I could connect to, because I do have a loud personality and it sometimes comes off as intimidating to some people.”

“She’s similar to me, but also different enough to make me grow as a person.”

Milak shares similar sentiments about Miles.

“The whole saying of opposites attracts, I never really understood it until I met her because she’s the complete opposite of me,” she said. “She’s very outgoing, she likes to talk to people and I like to keep to myself.”

“She made me grow out of my shell and I was forced to talk to her because at GMC, you’re forced into relationships, but they’re beneficial for you and once you realize it’s benefitting you, these relationships help you flourish and become a better person every day.”

Milak’s friendship with Miles has served as a reinforcement of courage, pushing Milak outside of her comfort zone to reveal her strengths.

“Back home, females are raised to be housewives…and that’s not what I want, and being here [at GMC] is what really changed that for me,” Milak said. “GMC brings out all my fears and makes me face them.”

Whether it’s riding in a Black Hawk helicopter, jumping off a diving platform for Combat Water Survival Training, or heading into one of the many classes they share together, where one goes, the other is not far behind.

When one roomie might struggle or need encouragement, the other steps in. Miles recognizes and applauds the cultural and individual challenges Milak has overcome.

“She’s really done a lot to get where she is, and me being born here and watching her go through things that I’ve never had to go through, makes me really realize that everyone’s past is different…and I’m really proud of her for where she is right now,” Miles said.

Miles sees her friend as an incredibly loyal, dedicated, and responsible Cadet. These traits and life experiences are what Miles believes will set Milak apart from other officers.

“She is going to use that to prove to her people, that are possibly minorities or not on a traditional American path, and really show them that its possible. You don’t have to be born here; you don’t have to have the standard American life to do something successful with your life.”

A leader on the soccer field and in the classroom, Milak has also left an impression on her cadre and fellow cadets in the Old Capitol Guard Battalion.

Capt. Ashley Robinson, Assistant Professor of Military Science at GMC, watched Milak come in as a freshman and establish herself as a stalwart example for her peers.

“Being a female officer myself, I understand the value of somebody who is not too proud, not too humble, somebody who is right in the middle, who can bring a strength to the program and can show other female cadets and even male cadets that you can do this, you can push through and achieve whatever you want to achieve,” Robinson said.

“I think she’s going to be an example of servant leader,” she adds. “[Milak] understands that the mission needs to be accomplished…but I think, more than anything, she leads by example. She’s not scared to tell people this is what needs to get done and this is how we are going to do it while keeping their interests in mind – not only giving them a task but giving them a purpose.”

Forging through her freshman year, Milak is still figuring out a few of the details for her future. She will attend Cadet Summer Training at Fort Knox, Ky., this summer, before moving into her final year at GMC and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the National Guard. She will remain in the Guard and complete her bachelor’s degree while hopefully playing soccer for an NCAA Division I team.

Though Milak still struggles to balance her African cultural and familial expectations with those of her own self-actualization and propensity for leadership, she hopes those components will one day reach a place of peace and understanding.

As she continues to make choices toward her future career field, her past experiences are still very much an influence – especially those that relate to her father.

“I want to continue what he didn’t get to do and, he actually doesn’t know that the reason I’m doing this is for him,” Milak said. “When we came here, he wasn’t able to continue being a doctor because of the language difference.”

“I want to carry on and do travel nursing for a little bit and then my brother encourages me to go on and get my doctorate, but I don’t know about that yet.”

While Milak figures out the finer details of her future, she is grateful for the opportunities at GMC to continue fine-tuning her leadership and developing her character – skills which she knows will benefit her both in the Guard and her civilian career.

As Milak considers how far she’s come and the opportunities ahead of her, she reflects on her second-grade self and the wisdom she would share with that frustrated, ballet shoe loving little girl.

“I would tell her everything is going to work out it always does,” Milak said. “Just hang in there for the ride.”

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