From mountains of Laos to the spacious skies of America

Catholic Charities immigration counselor knows, firsthand, the life of a refugee

GREEN BAY — Even after 36 years at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay, So Thao isn’t thinking about retirement. His job, as an accredited immigration counselor, is too fulfilling. Especially so, since Thao and his family were refugees themselves after the Vietnam War.

In 1969, the 16-year-old Thao joined a special unit of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Laos working against the communists. It was also called “the Secret Army” and made up of Hmong people.

So Thao, who has worked for Catholic Charities at the Diocese of Green Bay since 1984, holds a photo of himself as a teenager, serving in the CIA’s ‘Secret War’ in Laos during the Vietnam War. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“The (U.S.) government said, ‘We have to use a (local) group,’” Thao recalled. “The Hmong people had a history of fighting communism.  … That’s why we got the special duty.”

Thao joined for two reasons: First, in third grade, he chose to learn English at a private school. This meant he was able to pass the English exam to join the Secret Army. Secondly, there weren’t “many career opportunities” in Laos. He said the choices were teaching, nursing, truck driving or joining the army.

In the Secret Army, Thao could have been a T-28 pilot or a “forward aide.” Since “90% of the pilots got shot down,” he chose forward aide.

Forward aide officers were assigned to multiple battalions and were the only communications link between the Lao and the U.S. air forces. U.S. planes flew from Thailand and, once over the Laotian region, the forward aide relayed “drop orders.” Drops ranged from food parcels, to picking up wounded soldiers, to bombs. Thao was the youngest aide in his group and later earned the rank of lieutenant.

Detention in POW camp

In 1975, as war wound down, people tried to escape Laos into Thailand. However, Thao had been to Thailand and didn’t like conditions there. So he decided to stay, even though that meant detention in a POW camp. He believed he wouldn’t be killed there because “it was a political situation” and no longer a military one.

“It looked like my life was not in immediate danger,” he explained.

Life in the camp — with 500 to 600 prisoners — was hard, entailing heavy labor and what Thao now calls “brainwashing.”

“‘You worked for the U.S. government, the CIA,’” his captors repeatedly berated him. “They talked about how many we had killed. … ‘Because you had superiors who ordered you to do this, we will leave you alive if you don’t do anything wrong,’” he remembers them saying. “‘(But) you have to admit to your crime. You (committed) war crimes; we have an opportunity for you to clear yourself. Tell me, what did you do? How many soldiers did you kill? How many times did you call (for) aid to drop bombs?’”

Even friends in camp might betray each other, according to Thao.

“They forced you to tell everything,” Thao said. “If you tell everything, you die; If you don’t tell anything, you die. You are like a chicken in a coop; they can catch you at any time.”

Thao learned to survive.

“I felt hungry all the time,” he said. “I felt depressed. I felt many things. I wanted to escape. But even if you were hungry, depressed, you had to be a happy person all the time, to survive. You couldn’t complain. I learned to survive.”

Nor did he try to escape.

“Many people escaped and they were caught and brought back and put underground,” Thao recalled. “Underground” was a pit with no bathroom, no light. Prisoners were kept there around the clock. Most died.

“I thought, ‘I don’t think I can make it underground,’” Thao said.

An opportunity to escape

So he waited. An opportunity came in early 1979 at the Hmong New Year. Since he had been a good prisoner, he was allowed a leave to visit his parents. He was told to return in 30 days.

Thao didn’t intend to do that. He gave the pigeons he had been raising “for my mental health” to the one friend he trusted and left. After walking for two days, he reached the village where his family lived: Long Cheng.

“I was there for about 15 days,” Thao said, “and then the local officer asked me where I came from. I knew my life was in danger, so I left right away. I left my parents and siblings there. (He is one of seven children.) I came very close to the border with Laos, about to go over the border.”

But he didn’t. Instead, he stayed with cousins. Thoughts of his younger brother, Shoua, held him back. He remembered their mother saying how much Shoua had cried about his being in the POW camp. Also, Shoua had been pressed into labor at a local work farm and, because his brother was “a war criminal,” Shoua received the heaviest work.

Thao knew he had to rescue Shoua. So he walked back to Long Cheng and brought Shoua back to the border. There they bought an inner tube with money their mother had given them and crossed the Mekong River to Thailand. Thao could swim, but Shoua could not, so Thao pulled him across on the inner tube.

Thailand refugee camp

In Thailand, they were placed in the Vinei Refugee Camp, where Thao later met his wife, Pai Lor. There, Thao also reconnected with Jerry Daniel, the officer who had headed up his old CIA unit. Daniel recognized Thao by his code name, “Tech 2.”

After Daniel heard Thao’s story, he hired him as an interpreter at the U.S. Embassy for six months. During that time, he also enrolled Thao in a refugee program for those who had served in the CIA units. That program allowed Thao to come to the United States.

In June 1980, Thao and his wife came to Beaver Dam, where his married sister already lived. Three Presbyterian churches had sponsored them. The pastor of one even taught Thao how to drive a car. (The Thaos later joined the Catholic Church.)

Thao took a cleaning job at a grocery store. Later, he worked at a Green Giant vegetable plant. A job with the Madison health department followed and, in 1984, he came to Green Bay and Catholic Charities. By then, he was a U.S. citizen.

Most of the money So and Pai made went back to his parents in Laos, so they and the rest of the family could come here as well. It was still dangerous for them because of Thao’s CIA service.

“The Lao communists took over the country,” he explained. “They were very strict. … Many people were killed.”

So Thao holds a photo of himself while serving in a special unit of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Laos working against the communists. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

When the right time came for his family to leave Laos, it was 1986. Thao sent them a coded message: “‘Now there is peace and no war, you must travel south.’ That meant, ‘Go (quickly) to the Thai border,’” he explained.

Thao sent more money and a Polaroid camera. He pleaded with them to send photos before they left.

“In my mind, I thought, if they get killed, I have those pictures,” Thao explained.

Everyone made it and the family was reunited.

Reuniting other families

And this is what Thao does today: he reunites families, helps immigrants and aids refugees. He doesn’t know how many people he’s helped over these 36 years. “Maybe 6,000 to 10,000?” he guessed. “Let’s just say a lot.”

“I work here because of the mission of the church,” he told The Compass. “One day, about two months ago, I (worked with) two Cambodian refugees. She asked me, ‘How many years do you work here? I said, ‘36.’ She looked at me. … She didn’t believe it.

“But I thought: ‘This is what you do if you just live for money: you change jobs, you take different opportunities, you may not enjoy your life.’ If you work for something you believe, I think that’s important.”

His job has meant “many overtime hours,” and traveling to various airports to greet refugees, even late at night or in snowstorms.

“You have to get your job done,” Thao said. “Because of what we are about as a church, I feel very happy. We have to do what we have to do. My wife is so understanding, because … she knows it’s important. The refugees at the airport have no one.”

Thao also credits the bishops of Green Bay for supporting refugee resettlement.

Sometimes, he admits, the job is not easy. Some refugees and immigrants get angry with him. However, he said, “I cannot remember really getting angry, getting mad at a person whom I serve, because I came from what they come from. … If I were them, I would be angry too, because I didn’t get what I want.”

He counsels them that “things take time in relocating your life.” And he reassures them from his own experiences: “You will get it, but not now. You have reason to get angry. … I went through it before. … It was like I was born to a new life. I am not the same person anymore.”

Living with PTSD

He even understands the post-traumatic stress some people — including Vietnam vets — suffer. He did himself. For years, after coming to Wisconsin, he had a recurring nightmare about being back in the POW camp. It wasn’t until 1996, when he and Pai returned to Laos (he visited the camp, which is now a home for retired military veterans) that he found peace and the nightmares ended.

“I was in the military in the war and fought for the land,” he says now. “At that time, you didn’t realize (how) you loved the country, your country, until you realize, ‘This is the moment I will leave and never come back.’”

Even today, if Thao returned to Laos, he could be arrested. He is still considered “an enemy.” Even his family would be at risk.

“So I think more of freedom,” Thao said. “Refugees are not just (going) for a better life, but for freedom from the fear of persecutions. … (Laos) is not my home anymore. Home is where you can be safe and treated with dignity. I think that is home. This is my home because this is where I am treated right, I have freedom. It’s the land of opportunities.

“So,” he concluded, “I am thankful to the American people who opened their mind and heart to refugees who come to this country. That’s our strength.”