Aug. 6 2 p.m.
On his first visit to Veterans Memorial Park in Elgin, Em Ramangkoun’s son asked him, “Why isn’t there a memorial for you?”
When he answered, “I don’t know,” a seed was planted that sprouted an effort among Ramangkoun, and fellow Lao American Veterans of the Vietnam War, to make it happen. The group appointed Chin Keomuongchanh, a retired member of the U.S. Navy, to oversee the project. As a child, Keomuongchanh was among the first group of Lao refugee families to arrive in the U.S. in the mid-1970s and, among the first of their children to graduate from Elgin High School in 1980. “The memorial became my personal conviction,” he said.
During the Vietnam War, fought from 1961 to 1975, thousands of soldiers and airmen from Laos, a country bordering Vietnam, were secretly recruited and trained by the U.S. military to help prevent the spread of communism. They rescued downed pilots, protected U.S. outposts and engaged in guerrilla warfare. In the fight for freedom, they were injured, tortured and killed. For some, their alliance with the United States resulted in them becoming prisoners of war, starved and forced into hard labor.
When the allied forces left Vietnam, the Lao soldiers, after 15 years of aiding the U.S. military, escaped with their families to unspeakable conditions in refugee camps. The lucky ones gained entrance into America through sponsors from not-for-profit organizations. Once here, they formed the Lao-American Veterans Organization to help one another become acclimated to their new homeland. They learned English at the YMCA and took job skills training courses at nearby community colleges.
It took two and a half years, from the time Keomuongchanh and his group started working with local leaders and government agencies to erect a monument, until its unveiling on July 19, the first Lao American Veterans Day. Illinois is the only state in the country, and Elgin is the only city, to proclaim this honorary day, thanks to the efforts of Keomuongchanh and his colleagues. The date itself is significant because on July 19, 1949, the Lao government received its independence from France, and formed its own army.
Made possible with $12,000 in donations from the public, collected in just 8 months, the memorial marks Lao Vets place in history and reminds future generations of the “Secret War.”
“We want the American people to know that the relationship between these two countries didn’t start today,” Ramangkoun said. “During the Vietnam War, we had a working relationship with this country. When the war was over, we came here and no one knew why we were here. We came here because of the war. While here, we became good citizens, good neighbors.”
At the unveiling, a solemn hush came over the crowd as they watched 39 Lao American Veterans, dressed in combat fatigues, march in formation for the first time in more than four decades. The emotional ceremony brought back memories too painful for many Lao Vets to revisit, and a sense of gratitude for the freedom, education and opportunity in America.
Of the approximately 250 people who attended the event were members of the Lao American Veterans Organization of Elgin, as well as chapters from Georgia, Tennessee and Wisconsin, the Cambodian Veterans of Illinois, Buddhist monks from local temples, dignitaries, friends and relatives.
Keomuongchanh’s job did not end that day. He is now working with the U.S. Department of Education, to make the “Secret War” part of the curriculum at schools, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to obtain burial rights for Lao American Veterans at the country’s national cemeteries.
“Without their contributions to the war, think about how many more names would be added to the Vietnam Memorial,” said local historian Jerry Turnquist.
On a recent visit to the monument, Em Ramangkoun smiled, remembering the day his son asked the pivotal question he was then unable to answer. “Now my dream has come true,” he said.