THE GREATEST MAN I NEVER KNEW
DEDICATED TO MY FATHER & THE HMONG PILOTS
Perhaps it was because I was young and selfish, thinking that the world revolved around me and that the drama during my teenage years were the only things that existed in my world. Not only that, but I was a Hmong girl, the oldest of four girls. My sisters and I always wondered if that’s why he never talked to us about the Vietnam Was. I know that my parents have always been chastised from other family members because they never had any sons, but my father never complained and he never showed any disappointment in us. I don’t believe that my father ever intentionally meant to neglect telling us about his role in the war, maybe there were just some aspects of the war he just did not want to talk about. Perhaps it brought back bittersweet memories for him.
I think that it had a lot to do with the fact that we, Hmongs, have never been ones to really “talk” and convey our emotions properly. Every lesson taught was a riddle to be solved. At least that was the case in my upbringing. With the older generations, children were still meant to be seen not heard, and that is how many of those of my generation had grown up. We sat and listened like well behave children, we were not to question anything, we were not to speak unless spoken to. We never held hands, never hugged our parents, and never uttered the words, “I love you”. It’s not that we didn’t love each other, nor longed to be held, to be acknowledged. It was just that Hmong kids were taught to became adults a lot younger than our counterparts, and being adult meant being strong and holding your emotions inside. Yet, it was that mentality that also raised us to be passive about our past which leads to our regrets when we lose the opportunities to reap all the memories, all the knowledge of our elders.
I just never stopped to take the time to ask my parents what it was really like during that time. I know that my father is a great man, but I really didn’t know just how great he really was, until this past summer. My father is a Hmong veteran, a Hmong T-28 pilot to be exact and my mother, a Thai woman from the town of Nakom Panom. Their youth spent trying to survive during the height of the Vietnam War in Laos. We grew up knowing that we were Hmong, and we knew of the circumstances as to why we had to come to the United States. I even heard tidbits here and there from my mother about my dad flying and crashing and breaking his nose, but that was the extent of it. It was only this past summer in a muggy banquet hall in Maplewood, Minnesota that I was to truly “meet” my father.
Here we were in a hotel with a small banquet room packed full guests ranging from high ranking officials from the U.S. Air Force to family, friends, and invited guests of the pilots to see them being given their first acknowledgement of their role in the Vietnam War. Many of the men left behind all of their belongings, photos, training certificates, uniforms, anything that would identify them as pilots of the CIA’s Water Pump program. They feared for the safety of their family if they were to be caught with any of the above in their possession. So when they came here to the U.S. they all had quietly been forgotten and had no proof as to their involvement in the war. It was only recently that these men began to reconnect with each other, and with the technology we have today, it was possible for them to start sharing lost photos, documents, and information that would eventually lead to the recognition of these men. It was long overdue to a group of humble men, all of whom I can gladly call my “father” as well. It was the first time in 37 years that these men were to see each other again. For some, it had been since their departures from Laos back in the early 70’s. Watching these once young men, now older, a little sadder, some of whom are not in the best of health… well, let’s just say it brings tears to my eyes. As the video tribute was playing you could see the longing of younger days, the soft chuckles and teasing of the styles of youth, but you could see the tears, some trying to be held back at the thoughts of all their brothers who had died fighting for what they believed would let their children lead better lives. The widows and children of the fallen pilots coming forth to receive their recognition on behalf of their fathers…for some it brought closure to the hurt of never knowing their husbands/fathers, for the resentment of being forgotten. For many of us children in attendance that day, the memories shared by fellow pilots and their wives was like finding a key to a treasure chest and I know for that, just like me, they are grateful. In being there that day, I believe many of us, even those who no longer had a biological father, found that they still indeed had “fathers” and a connection to a group of extended family they never knew as well. We all discovered how difficult it was for our fathers to learn how to fly. They flew on outdated equipment, they flew in terrain that was treacherous to take off and land in, and not to mention in all weather conditions and even at night. They flew endless missions knowing that they may never return home to their loved ones. We learned how wives and mothers had to become fathers as well and care for the home and well-being of the children while the fathers were away, or for the fathers that never returned. We learned that being Hmong meant being brave and smiling on the outside, even if you were dying on the inside. It meant living for the next day, living for your children and the future of your children no matter what obstacles were thrown in your way. Even if it meant sacrificing everything you owned materialistically. I learned a lot about my father that day, but all unspoken by him of course, as it was always his way to be a quiet man, but a man whose actions mean even more to this day.
All my life, he has tried to give us the best of a western life as well as trying to make sure we would remember and respect the ways of the Hmong . He came to the U.S. with a little English speaking skills and learned to adapt quickly. He worked quietly day in and day out to provide for our every need and wants, but he never neglected our family. There were weekend picnics at the beach, fishing trips, and family vacations to even Disney World. Even though he wanted us to have an “all American” life, he also taught us to remember and respect the Hmong ways of life because no matter “what color you dye your hair, speak English, and act like you are not Hmong” you will always be Hmong and one day you will come back to love who you are. As others may squirrel away money for a rainy day, I collect memories for the days when my children are grown and I am alone so that I may withdraw these precious moments to keep me company and bring a smile to my old wrinkled face. I believe that that time has come for me and I am sure for many others like me to acknowledge this…I do love the fact that I am Hmong, and I cherish everything I can learn about my heritage, and I wear it as my badge of honor for the greatest man I never knew. I may not have ever hugged him, I may never have held his hand, and I have never so much as whispered the words “I love you dad”, but it is never too late to start, and I encourage all of you to take the time and do the same today.
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