Books by Andrew Lam:
Perfume Dreams, East Eats West, Birds of Paradise Lost
Watch more footage from our 2012 Vietnam War Symposium here
Books by Andrew Lam:
Perfume Dreams, East Eats West, Birds of Paradise Lost
Watch more footage from our 2012 Vietnam War Symposium here
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.
Copyright (C) May not use without permission.
Supporting Our Troops Paul Kluge
Along with drill sergeants and discipline, our military recruits almost always discover varieties of people they never knew existed, American or otherwise. They are likely to find themselves dealing with cultures and belief systems they have only heard about or read about. Seeing the world through military eyes can be an eye opener for the sailor, Marine, soldier, or airman.
For some veterans this awareness is a distinct surprise but over a period of time becomes normal as the familiarity grows and strangeness lessens. Later, however, after returning home from service the veteran can feel a distance between him/herself and the old home life. A negative sense of being treated differently than others is common.
Serving our country is a long and lonely business. Those who have been exposed to the combat side of war very likely have more and different experiences that separate them from the rest of us back here at home. Too often the returning veteran simply stops talking about what is important to him or her because, as the veteran quickly learns, there is no way for others to understand. The phrase “you had to be there” comes to mind, and no one wishes for that. Whatever the veteran says or shares is likely to seem inadequate or vague to the civilian world, and the combat veteran goes to great lengths to avoid being asked questions along the line of, “how many people did you kill?” Asking such questions is typically seen by the veteran as degrading and even haunting to himself as well as the memory of those who have died or been maimed, or died needlessly in wartime.
These veterans quickly learn that family and friends can no longer connect with them in the familiar old ways. There may be a sense of now understanding how the world really works that the homebodies just don’t get. But what has changed? Has the veteran simply drifted out of the home-loop while away, or maybe the veteran really has just “wised up?” Have the family and friends inadvertently left behind the serviceman in their busy lives, and somehow the serviceman no longer fits into the same family/friend groove? The consequences may be unintentional but they are real. Frankly, all answers fail to change the fact that the veteran is in a cold and lonely place. Conversations with most non-veterans may be limited now–others, the civilians, can’t understand and they tend to prattle on and on with the trivial matters of concern to few, but especially the veteran. It can suddenly be difficult for the veteran to trust others. The others want to know but won’t listen. And when those others fade out or fade away after no longer being entertained or not hearing the expected, the veteran is likely to withdraw further. Returning from active duty too often ends in a cruel result from honorable and meritorious service, especially when that duty has been in stressful circumstance and in a combat zone.
Our culture goes to great lengths connecting the illusion of glory and the reality of war. It is the returning warrior who knows there is no such connection, and the disconnect becomes greater with the passage of time spent back from the battle. And when family and friends are not able to make an honest connection with the veteran, the sense of isolation and separation for the veteran will likely become greater rather than be diminished. Then, as always, it is not only the veteran who suffers, but also the family, the friends, the employers, and society.
As good Americans we’ve made it a point in recent years to remind our military people and their families that we “Support Our Troops.” We attach and apply the bumper stickers, yard signs, and magnetic messages just about everywhere. Yet, we may wonder from time to time if our efforts are appreciated and if we are doing enough.
Yes, these efforts are appreciated but maybe there is more many of us can do.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become a clinical term most of us are now familiar with. Regardless if a person was in combat or not, the accumulation of emotionally wounding duties and experiences can create bigger and deeper obstacles towards making hometown adjustments. As more has been learned about PTSD, we’ve realized this disorder goes back a long way. In World War I a condition known as “Shell Shock” became a disabler of troops. World War II and Korean War authorities attributed similar casualties to “Combat Fatigue.” The official sounding name, PTSD, came along after Vietnam Veterans began experiencing serious and similar problems blending back into society. Surely one of the reasons Vietnam Veterans suffer as much as we do is that during those painfully divisive years of our war, society was not willing or able to offer an accepting and healing environment.
There are other cultures and countries who have done better than we, and have welcomed their returning soldiers in ways that allows the veteran to feel different but normal or even enlightened. The Native American culture is an excellent example of this. It is understandably difficult to advance through life while still tied to the trauma and sometimes the guilt that can be associated with PTSD. Why is it expected that our veterans “get over it?” Indeed. We want to.
For any of us—for all of us, connecting with veterans can be a pleasure as well as an honor. If your offer of renewed friendship isn’t openly accepted, please be patient. There are good reasons for this. The duties, experiences, and stress of war and wartime affect people in many and different ways. Let your veteran know that you recognize a change or difference in your relationship, but that you are willing to accept this new relationship on terms he or she can accept, and in an open time-frame. Everyone wants and needs trusted friends who are willing to listen and who accept us as we are. Everyone.
During a Memorial Day Service some years ago at Fort Snelling, St. Paul, I was approached by a stranger who asked about my service some 20 years previous. After a brief explanation of service in the Vietnam War the stranger delivered three stunning words to me before drifting away; “Welcome home, soldier.” It was a new concept to me; something I had not before been told. Immediately tears ran down my cheeks. But it was a healing moment. Perhaps it was the simplicity or maybe the sincerity of those few words, but somehow the service to my country was made complete by that moment, my homecoming made real, and I was now welcomed back and again complete. Whatever it was or is, I will carry that feeling and that message from a stranger with me always.
Not all veterans carry traumatic memories or suffer nightmares from conflict, but it may be fair to say that it is veterans who carry not only the burdens of our wars—doing what must be done; it is also they who, long after the hostilities have ended, mourn for us all. It is the veteran who continues to feel the pain, not because of any implicit understanding of war—far from it, but because they are the ones who know war never can be understood. If you don’t know how to “Support Our Troops,” don’t be afraid. Please reach out when you can, as you can, and do your best to understand, and especially to continue listening when there is no understanding. Your efforts are appreciated more than you know.
Disclaimer: If you are needing more extensive assistance or counseling, there are many available agencies to assist you. No blogs are ever meant to substitute a person seeking help through professional counseling.
Hmong T-28 Pilots, In remembrance, Beautiful Tribute, Memorial
Hmong T-28 Pilots Who Served and Survived During the American War in Vietnam
Thuy Smith International was given permission to play this clip.
There is never glory in war. This video from our perspective is posted in the context of a Tribute for the sacrifices made, some the ultimate sacrifice…..In remembrance.
Tracey is a proud Daughter of a Vietnam Veteran who recently lost her father to a tragic accident in August of 2011. She is now going to blog for our organization and some of her writing will be reflections of her father and his service. Read her BIO on our Author’s Page here.
My Father’s Notebook: A Daughter’s Journey to Learn about her Dad’s Service in Vietnam
My husband, Bob, and I attended the Vietnam Veteran’s Day Banquet for the first time this year (Learn more here). We came in honor of my father, Glen Johnson, a Vietnam Veteran. But this was more than a banquet to me; it was a new path on my journey of understanding and of healing about my Dad and his experiences in Vietnam. This journey had begun the day Dad passed away, and it started with a simple notebook.
Sitting at our table at the banquet that night were three lovely couples. We were fully entertained by their stories: we heard of some close calls and serious injuries; we heard how the army “went to the wall,” but the marines “went through the wall;” and we heard about living with the diabetes brought on by exposure to Agent Orange. In the few hours we were there, I had heard nearly as much about Vietnam from these new friends as I had from Dad in all my 40 years.
Dad left Vietnam more than 42 years ago. But Vietnam never left him. He returned home with the deep scars that couldn’t be seen, both from the war and from the harsh reception that accompanied his return in 1969. He poured himself into his work and caring for his family, running his own excavating business for decades. A gentle soul, he would do anything and everything for a friend in need and never ask for anything in return.
My mother, my four brothers and sisters, and I all knew he was a veteran. We had heard the story about how he had left behind my mom, Sally—his bride of only two weeks—to go off to basic training. My sister, Shelley, would be born while Dad was half a world away. And yet we knew nearly nothing about this year of his life. Perhaps it was the way he would respond to our inquiries with as few words as possible, if he answered at all. Perhaps it was the sorrowful look that would wash over him at the mere mention of that far away land that told us this was something he would not, he could not talk about.
So we waited for Dad to tell us in his own time. But we ran out of time. On August 10, 2011, the semi Dad was driving smashed into the Lowery Tunnel in Minneapolis. We would learn Dad was probably gone before the impact. We gathered together to lean on one another, to make it through this tragedy as a family. And that night, after the neighbors and friends and extended family left us to the barbecues and casseroles and to our grief, we would open Dad’s notebook and read for the first time Dad’s memories of Vietnam.
This plain, ordinary notebook had lived upon my parents’ refrigerator for nearly three years. That night I read Dad’s words as he shared the sights, sounds, and feelings he experienced the first three months of his year-long tour of service in Vietnam. Dad’s description of his experiences were so vivid, I initially thought the journal was from 1968.
Then Mom shared the story of Dad’s notebook:
On a cold day in December of 2008, as I was heading out the door to go to work, he asked me for a notebook. I got him one and asked what he was going to do. He said, “I think that Dan [Dad’s therapist at the VA] is right, maybe it will help if it is written down.”
I gave him the notebook, kissed him goodbye and went to work. When I got home about 8 hours later he was still sitting in the same spot. I noticed he had written a few things, and we talked about it for a while. I asked him if he wanted me to read it, and he said no, not until it was done. So he closed the notebook, and gave it a new home on the top of the refrigerator.
This was a journey towards healing that did not come easily. Every fall when he was not working I would see him with the notebook many times. Sometimes he seemed to get a lot written, other times only a few words, with sheets of paper crumbled and tossed. Today his notebook looks like it could have been from 1969—very worn, but a good friend that didn’t judge the words he struggled to make himself write down. That journey came to an end at 6:27 a.m. on August 10, 2011, having not finished telling his story.
So today, Dad’s journey of healing is done and his spirit is at peace. My journey, and that of my whole family, has just begun. We’ve begun a search, some 40 years in the making, to learn more about the rest of Dad’s time in Vietnam. We began searching through records and, more importantly, searching for the men who shared Dad’s life for that difficult year. Amazingly, we have to date located four men who served alongside Dad. We’re looking to learn more about this year of life that so changed Dad but ultimately made him the man that he was. We’re looking for information, for answers to some of the questions that have gone unanswered all our lives. We’re looking to honor Dad’s service and sacrifice. We’re looking for healing, because Dad’s story is also our story.
In this blog, I would like to share some of Dad’s story and mine. This is a journey of healing for me, as we look to find more information. I hope I can draw from Dad’s sincerity and wit. If even one person finds hope, healing, or comfort from our story, then I know I am honoring his memory and truly thanking all those who have loved and supported and helped my Dad.