Did you know that you could fight for this country in a foreign land, be a POW for 12 years, suffer PTSD as a result, and still be denied veteran benefits?
"For years, there were bullets flying everywhere" said my soft-spoken friend as he sat across from me in a Minnesota office. Did you get wounded I ask. "Yes, I was shot twice." Did you ever get a Purple Heart? "No" he says "never."
As he told me the stories, the years fell away. "The only way North Vietnam could send soldiers and supplies to South Vietnam was via the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was our mission to stop them, do everything possible to stop the supplies from getting to the Vietcong." A slow smile of soldier's pride grew on his face, "I destroyed so many tanks." But I could see the toll war took on this gentle man "Even now, I have good and I have bad days, I am not fully functioning."
My friend tells me more about the seven years he spent working for the CIA, a brutal time of upheaval and death for so many. But he is very proud of his role, he tells me about one time he was able to save nine downed U.S. pilots from capture. He tells me about his training on military bases in Texas, Georgia, and Kentucky.
What happened after those seven years? "I was put in a prisoner of war camp for 12 years. It was very harsh. We had to work 12 hours a day with very little food and no medicine. Many of the men died. I was one of the very last they released. Then the American Embassy flew me back here."
The reason the U.S. Government gives for not providing my friend and the estimated 14,000 remaining Vietnam POWs like him with health insurance is because they were born in Laos. During the Vietnam conflict, Laos was technically a neutral country. Even though North Vietnam flaunted this by establishing their primary supply lines through Laos, the U.S. government did not want to defy the Geneva Convention by stationing soldiers in a neutral country.
What was the answer? A secret war. First, there was close coordination with the Laotian Royal Army. Eventually the CIA wanted direct control, so they recruited thousands of Laotian soldiers, taught them English, brought them to the United States for training, and deployed them secretly to disrupt the critical supply lines.
"So many of us have post traumatic stress syndrome" continues Mr. Khao, once a Regimental Commander for one of many CIA-led Special Guerilla Units. "You see, we were also fighting against our own people." And, I realize, they lost their home as a result.
Mr. Khao estimates 25,000 CIA-led soldiers were flown to the United States and became citizens after they were finally released from the POW camps.
For the last two years, Mr. Khao has contacted every legislator he can, asking for official recognition and veteran's benefits for these thousands of U.S. citizens who were soldiers for the CIA's secret war in Laos. So far nothing has come to pass.
My father and his brothers all fought in Vietnam, one didn't make it back. I think of how these very different men were once brothers in arms, united in risking everything to fight for our country.
"The soldiers understand" says Mr. Khao. "They know it is unjust and tell me to keep speaking up, some day the government will listen and make this right." He sits across from me with his quiet dignity and clenches his hands, "But we are getting older every day. Many of us don't even have health insurance. We are running out of time."
Still Mr. Khao is hopeful. After years of work, he knows there is more attention to the Laotian soldiers now. Several U.S. Special Forces Associations have written letters asking for military benefits for their brothers from Laos. The state of Minnesota recently honored him for his years of service to the people of Minnesota, his service in the secret war, and his efforts to get official attention for the veterans. "I will keep asking until we do the right thing" he says.
His faith is in the United States is contagious. He has the hope of so many immigrants -- that this is the land of justice and opportunity. Yes, I hope we do the right thing in time for these men who lost so much for our country. I rise to shake his hand; it is not often I meet a hero.
If you would like to show support for Mr. Khao and all the Laotian POWs asking to be recognized as veterans, please sign and share the change.org petition we have started here.