By Adam Vue
The Vietnam War started as a strategy of the United States to prevent the spread of communism during the Cold War. A legendary CIA agent by the name of Bill Lair, recruited Hmong General Vang Pao to help assist the United States. General Vang Pao was the leader and branch of the Hmong people, he was the one who led the Hmong soldiers and the one who dealt with communication between the United States CIA and the Hmongs. This event was considered a “Secret War” because the United States wasn’t supposed to be there and it was a war that the United States government didn’t want to acknowledge. My grandpa’s name is Sheeyee Thao and he is a Vietnam War Veteran who fought under General Vang Pao during the Secret War.
He was 15 turning 16 years old when he joined the Army in March 22nd, 1964. In the beginning, the Hmong people were told by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that they were going to school and not actually joining the Army. “We went in thinking that it was just school. We were only taught math for 2 months and then on the 3rd month in July 17, 1964 was when we started receiving all the army clothes, guns, and ammo. On August 26, 1964 was when we were forced into War.” He was sent to Long Tieng where he was assigned to group number 21, and there were 24 groups in total. Each group had anywhere from two to three hundred men. My grandpa’s motive going into this war was to protect his land, families and to give them freedom; but at the end, we Hmong people lost everything that our people were fighting for.
My grandpa was paid $1700 per month but his family didn’t receive any kind of benefit or money at all. He wasn’t afraid of death, he told me, “I wasn’t scared of dying because we’re going to die either way. All that matters is who’s sees each other first, if I see the enemy first he dies if they see me first I die, there’s really no escaping that.”. He’s lost many close friends during the war, “I’ve had friends who had their brains blown out right beside me, friends who were blown in half. I remember this one time I was in front and two of my comrades were behind me, enemies shot at us but missed me and killed both my comrades that were behind me.”. I can only imagine seeing my friends getting killed in front of me, brains splattered everywhere, stains of blood of your comrades clothes, the sounds of crying, wheezing, the smell of gunpowder, the fear running through your body as you’re standing over your dead comrades, the taste of blood and defeat, the only way for victory is to make sacrifices that a person should never have to make in life. Another short funny story he told was “I remember this one time me and my friends were out on patrol. We saw 3 enemies washing their clothes by the river. I told my friends since they’re so scared to kill people, I’ll show them how it’s done. I then shot one of those enemies in the head and then the other 2 started shooting at us crazy, we ran and ran and ran until we came upon this little cave and that’s where we hid from them and finally escaped.”
My grandpa was also shot once in his thigh, but he said that it didn’t affect him at all. The guns that they were using in the war were M16, M1 Carbine, M1 Garand, Rocket Launchers, and many other Light Machine Guns. Sheeyee’s everyday thought was only about when they’re going to fight and how he’s going to defend himself. This surprised me because I thought he would be thinking about how his family is doing, but he said that would only be a distraction that can get him killed. My grandpa’s first initial thoughts after killing his first human being was “If I wasn’t going to shoot him, he was going to shoot me.”, which surprised me a lot because I thought there would be way more thoughts and/or emotions running through his mind but instead it’s just strictly about survival. My grandpa lived by a simple but very strict rule that he made for himself, “Always bring your gun no matter what and always wear clothes, watch your friends back, how many people are in your group and alert your comrades if anything happens.” and this is what has helped him to survive through the war. From this life changing event, my grandpa has learned, “Being alive, you’ve got to be brave. Don’t be lazy, don’t be a heavy sleeper and take your pride of being in the Army high because you’re doing this to protect your own people and your loved ones.” He said he doesn’t regret anything and wouldn’t want to change anything, “When you’re a soldier, you don’t think about anything other than killing the enemies and not to steal from others. What’s done is done”.
My grandpa came to the U.S. on December 31st, 1989. The only way they were able to communicate with the Americans was because they had an interpreter. All the Hmong family were really poor, each family was given their own apartment, food stamps, and a little bit of money for their own needs. “When we first came to the US, we were very poor. We had to survive off of food stamps and other government aid. I had to take care of your grandma and the kids all the way until each of the kids got married. Then in 1997 was when I started receiving SSI money.” After this interview, I thought my grandpa would feel some sort of way about the CIA, especially when they lied to all the young Hmong guys and forced them into war; so I asked him, “Were you mad or felt betrayed when the CIA forced you guys into the Army?” he responded “No, I don’t have any hatred or anything towards them. As a young poor boy in Laos, I wanted to become a soldier anyway.” This respond left me speechless because I can’t believe he would’ve responded so calmly and not have any negative feelings towards the CIA after being lied to and “forced” into a war even though he wanted to be a soldier, but I we’re made differently.