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U.S., Montagnard Soldiers Have Ties

June 3, 2002

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FARMER, N.C. (AP) _ A husky American stood with arms wrapped tightly around two Montagnard men, renewing a bond born on the battlefield more than 30 years ago with the two natives of the central Vietnamese highlands.

The three men fought together in Vietnam, George Clark as a staff sergeant in the Army Special Forces, K’Sao Krajan and Y’Diam ``Charlie″ Hmok as Montagnard soldiers recruited to battle the Viet Cong.

``See if you can imagine having people who totally, unconditionally trusted you that you would bring them to victory,″ Clark said. ``These men were such ferocious fighters, yet such gentle, loving men.″

Years later, the special relationship between Special Forces veterans and the Montagnard people helps explain why more than 900 Montagnards are coming to North Carolina this summer from refugee camps in Cambodia.

The newcomers will swell a Montagnard population that numbers more than 4,000 in North Carolina _ by far the largest outside Vietnam.

They are here in large part because so many Special Forces soldiers and veterans live in North Carolina, the state that is home to the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, at Fort Bragg.

The name ``Montagnard″ (MON-ten-YARD) is French for ``mountain people″; members of the Montagnard community know themselves as the Dega.

As with previous waves of Montagnard immigrants, veterans lobbied the U.S. government to win refugees the right to come to North Carolina.

The newcomers started to arrive over the weekend. A network of veterans and social service groups has mobilized to help them find jobs and adjust to life in America.

Inspired by other veterans, Lee Ashburn, who served in the Marine infantry in Vietnam and now owns a lumberyard in Climax, just south of Greensboro, plans to give jobs to up to 10 new arrivals.

``I think a lot of promises were made to (the Montagnards) and when we didn’t stay to win the war, they kind of got cut off,″ he said.

``During the Vietnam War, sometimes the Montagnard people saved the U.S. soldiers,″ said Y-Bhuat Eban, a resident of Gibsonville and head of the group Montagnard Human Rights. ``That bond still remains in mind.″

For many Montagnards and American veterans, Vietnam remains unfinished business. That was clear when hundreds gathered Memorial Day weekend for the annual North Carolina Montagnard picnic, held in Farmer, about 30 miles south of Greensboro.

``That was a war we could have won,″ if only the Green Berets and the Montagnards had been left alone to fight it, Clark said.

One key to the U.S. military’s Vietnam strategy was battling the Viet Cong guerrillas with unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency tactics. Special Forces _ the soldiers known as Green Berets _ ventured into the highlands to win support for the American-South Vietnamese war effort.

Men like Clark and David ``Pappy″ Hicks, a Special Operations veteran of Korea and Vietnam, came to love the people they affectionately called ’``yards,″ and have never accepted the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

``I am so unhappy about us walking out on them that when I die and they fold my flag, I will die ashamed,″ said Hicks, 69, who wore a traditional red-and-black Montagnard shirt to the picnic.

The Montagnards’ alliance with the Americans _ and the fact many had been converted to Christianity by missionaries _ made life more difficult for them after Vietnam was unified under communist rule in 1975. For many, the war continued, as they fought unsuccessfully to liberate the central highlands from the communist government.

Matthew Daley, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, led negotiations to bring the current refugees to the United States. He sees deep historical parallels between Montagnards and Americans.

``It’s really evocative for me of the Declaration of Independence,″ said Daley, who attended the picnic. ``Our forefathers rose up in arms, pledged their lives, their fortunes, for honor. These guys here have done the same thing.″

While many at the picnic talked about the plight of the Montagnards through the years, others looked to the future _ especially the future of the young Montagnards at the picnic ground, dressed in baggy jeans and baseball caps.

Krajan believes the more the young continue to assimilate, the better.

``I’m old and sad,″ said Krajan, 55. ``They’re young and happy.″


On the Net:

Save The Montagnard People: http://www.montagnards.org

U.S. Army history of Special Forces in Vietnam: http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/BOOKS/Vietnam/90-23/90-23C.htm

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