CALIFORNIA – America’s Secret War in Laos was recounted Saturday at the McConnell Foundation where speakers from the Lao and Mien communities in Shasta County told stories of how they fought alongside their U.S. allies to combat communist forces during the Vietnam War.
The event, “Unsung Heroes: Our Lao and Mien allies in the Secret War,” featured an exhibit of Lao and Mien cultures with clothes and jewelry. Six speakers on a panel shared their journey from Laos to Shasta County.
Yoon Nam Thungc said he doesn’t recall much about the war, but does remember the effects the war had on his father. His father, Meng Sio, was a farmer who didn’t begin his education until he was 17 years old. And as the oldest child of seven, he volunteered to join the army to fight for the U.S. in 1969.
“He volunteered to go to war so his younger brothers had the chance to go to school,” Thungc said about his father.
Sio became a radio operator for the Mien militia, which helped enable communication among the military units. After combat, he returned to his village and began farming again, only to realize that communist soldiers were getting closer to his home. In 1973, when Thungc was 3 months old, the whole family escaped.
Thungc said they moved to the uplands of northern Thailand and stayed there for eight years before their village was burned down again, and then entered a refugee camp. Thungc said his grandfather was reluctant to leave Laos, not wanting to abandon his homeland for another place where he didn’t speak the language.
But when Thung’s family arrived in Portland, Oregon, in 1980, his grandfather stayed behind in Thailand. A few years later, Thung’s grandfather died, and it weighed heavily on his father Sio.
Sio suffered from alcoholism and struggled with the sadness of not being near his own father during his last days, holding his head, as is custom in Mien culture, Thungc said.
“In 2008, because of alcoholism, my father passed away in Redding, California,” Thungc said holding back tears.
Songkeo Souriyaseng, who sat next to Thungc on the panel, spoke with the help of a Lao interpreter. He told the audience he wishes the U.S. government would recognize their efforts in the war, too, and provide the communities with proper recognition of the service of Lao vets.
He was a schoolteacher with six children prior to the war, but was drafted to join the Special Guerrilla Unit in Nam Yu in 1964. When the Secret War ended in 1974, he spent nine years in a hard labor camp and escaped with his family to Thailand during a transfer.
Souriyaseng arrived with his family in Shasta County in September 1986. He said he continued to have nightmares for 10 years after the war, wondering what would have happened if he or his family had been caught during the escape. And being in Shasta County wasn’t an easy transition.
He said he’s had people spit on him and harass him. He remembered an occasion when he and his wife were at the laundromat, how people would remove his clothes from the washer and throw it on the floor in front of them.
Mike Dahl, a former Redding mayor and Vietnam War Marine veteran, told the crowd the Vietnam War was the most transparent war that was also very opaque and covert, and that the Mien and Laos veterans deserved to be recognized.
“Welcome home Lao and Mien veterans,” he told the panel. “Welcome home unsung heroes.”
The Secret War was led by the Central Intelligence Agency and was widely reported to have taken place without approval from the Congress. According to CIA’s website, the agency refuted the claim, stating Congress was well-informed of the war and that appropriations subcommittees that provided funds were briefed about it regularly.
The mission of the Secret War on Vietnam’s western border was to destroy supply lines used by the communist army by dropping tons of bombs in Laos.