Lao Immigrant Family Learns Son Died in Afghan Helicopter Crash

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Sengchanh Douangdara of South Sioux City holds a portrait of her son, John Douangdara, on Monday. John Douangdara was among U.S. Navy SEALs killed in action Saturday when their helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan. (Journal photo by Tim Gallagher)

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011 at 10:20 am UTC

A Lao immigrant family in the United States says one of their members was among the 30 U.S. troops who died last week in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

Sengchanh Douangdara has told reporters in Sioux City, Iowa, she was notified of her son’s death by military officials on Saturday.

The son, John Douangdara, 26, was a master at arms in the elite Navy SEALs, where he worked as a dog handler. The mother said she had not known John was part of the Seal unit but that he loved his work and died doing the job he chose.

Sengchanh Douangdara said she immigrated from Laos 31 years ago and has four more children living in the United States. Her oldest child, Chan Follen, said the family is proud John died fighting for the country that embraced the family and gave them the opportunity to pursue the American dream.

Family says Navy SEAL from South Sioux among dead

Associated Press3:05 p.m. CDT, August 8, 2011

A U.S. Navy SEAL from South Sioux City was among the 30 American troops killed when a military helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, family members said.

Sengchanh Douangdara told the Sioux City Journal that military officials notified her of her son’s death on Saturday. The newspaper said Monday that Master at Arms, Class 1 John Douangdara, 26, was a lead dog handler for the elite unit.

“I know he loved his job, it was a job he chose,” his mother said.

Douangdara, a 2003 graduate of South Sioux City High School, was aboard a Chinook helicopter that the military said was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in eastern Afghanistan. Twenty-two elite SEAL personnel, Air Force troops, an Army air crew and eight Afghans were killed. Military officials said the troops were on a mission to assist forces pursing a Taliban leader.

“We are proud Johnny fought for the country that embraced our family and gave us the opportunity to reach for the American dream,” said Chan Follen, the oldest of five children in the family, which came to the United States from Laos three decades ago.

There was no answer to a telephone call from The Associated Press to the Douangdara family in South Sioux City on Monday. There was no phone listing for Chan Follen in the area.

At least two troops from Nebraska were killed in the helicopter crash.

The Nebraska National Guard confirmed Monday that Sgt. Patrick Hamburger, 30, of Grand Island, was among the dead. He was a flight engineer with the Army National Guard’s Company B, 2nd Battalion 135th General Support Aviation unit, which is based in Grand Island.

AP-WF-08-08-11 2302GMT

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

South Sioux City, Neb., man among Navy SEALs killed Saturday

SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. — The family of a U.S. Navy SEAL serving in Afghanistan confirmed the death of their son and brother on Saturday in a helicopter crash in Wardak province.

The city is located just across the river from Sioux City, Iowa.

Sengchanh Douangdara, the mother of U.S. Navy SEAL John Douangdara, said military officials approached her home at 10 a.m. Saturday to deliver the news of her son’s death. Master at Arms, Class 1 John Douangdara, 26, was a dog handler for the elite military unit.

The 2003 South Sioux City High School graduate was aboard a Chinook helicopter with 37 others when the aircraft was shot down during an anti-Taliban operation in the Tangi Valley.

Thirty U.S. troops were killed, including nearly two dozen members of the U.S. Navy SEALs. Seven Afghan soldiers and an Afghan interpreter also were killed in the deadliest incident for U.S. forces since the start of the decadelong war.

“I didn’t even know Johnny was a Navy SEAL,” his mother said. “I know that he loved his job, it was a job he chose.”

The family’s sadness was tempered with pride that their brother and son had served his country, a country that welcomed these Laotian immigrants 31 years ago.

“We are proud Johnny fought for the country that embraced our family and gave us the opportunity to reach for the American dream,” said Chan Follen, the oldest of five children in the family.

Sengchanh and Phouthasith Douangdara fled Communist forces in their native Laos in 1979. After the birth of their first child, daughter Chan, they immigrated to the U.S., part of a large contingent of refugees at the time who escaped Laos.

Johnny was born four years later, the third of five children the couple would raise in South Sioux City.

“He was the middle child, very quiet,” sister Chan said. “He loved school activities.”

Johnny was small in stature, growing to only 5 feet, 7 inches. He participated in wrestling in junior high, but not in high school. Mock trial became his favorite activity at South Sioux City High School.

“I hate to say this, but he was a geek,” older brother Pan Douangdara said. “He loved computers.”

He grew to love the military as well, building upon a relationship with a recruiter who began communicating with him in high school. Johnny earned the credits needed to graduate during the fall semester of his senior year at South Sioux City High. He graduated and headed to Basic Training.

“Us older siblings offered to help him pay for college, but he said the military is what he wanted to do,” Chan Follen said.

Even on the drive to Basic Training, Johnny told his older brother that someday he’d be working on a nuclear submarine.

Evidently, his passion for dogs interrupted that career track. When John Douangdara died on Saturday, he reportedly was handling a dog he had trained for work with the Navy SEALs in Afghanistan.

His family didn’t know the specifics of his work or that he was a member of the elite SEALs. When he spoke, he didn’t share information about his work or the missions he completed in five overseas tours.

He was last at home in June to attend the wedding of sister Chan, who exchanged vows at Bev’s on the River, the last wedding before floodwaters struck Sioux City. He spent the week eating barbecue, swimming and partying with family members.

“It was a celebration, both for my wedding and for Johnny being back home,” Chan said.

The last time he’d had such an extended stay with family occurred in 2009, when the family traveled back to Laos. Johnny paid for his trip and his mother’s. The trip gave him a chance to spend time with his grandfather, Bo Khomvouttavong, who served as a captain in the Royal Laos Army more than three decades ago.

Upon learning of his death, the family erected a memorial in their living room on East 15th Street in South Sioux City. The modest split level home now features a candle that has burned since Saturday morning. The candle is surrounded by fresh flowers, fresh fruit, pictures of Johnny and food that is changed three times per day. The memorial follows Buddhist religious traditions involving the recently deceased.

The candle will remain lit until John Douangdara’s remains are laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Chan Follen said the funeral will take place sometime within the next two weeks.

A U.S. flag moved in the breeze Monday as family members shared their memories. None shed a tear during an hourlong interview.

“I don’t think my brother would call himself a hero,” Chan Follen said. “He was doing his job, doing what he believed in. But in our hearts, he’ll always be our hero.”

Copyright 2011 All rights reserved.

Laotian American family grieves son’s sacrifice as a Navy SEAL

The Douangdara family mourns the loss of their Laotian American son, John Douangdara, who died last weekend in Wardak province, Afghanistan after insurgents shot down a Chinook Helicopter transporting thirty US troops to a rescue mission.

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