Former Hmong soldier Wa Seng Ly recounts Vietnam War

Monday, November 22, 2010

Wa Seng Ly and his wife, My Thao, who together own Valley American Asian Foods on Elsie St. in Appleton, are photographed on Veterans Day. Seng Ly is a Hmong veteran of the Vietnam War and served as a forward observer (artillery spotter) on a U.S. aircraft during the war. (Post-Crescent photo by Sharon Cekada)

APPLETON — The sky over Long Chiang, Laos showed a hint of daylight as Hmong army Capt. Wa Seng Ly walked to a waiting U.S. Air Force Cessna observation aircraft with an American pilot at the controls.

Ly's watch read 4:30 a.m. that day in February 1972 as the veteran of more than 500 missions as a forward air controller readied for another flight to spot formations of North Vietnamese soldiers and equipment traveling the Ho Chi Minh trail toward South Vietnam.

Flights of American fighter bombers headed toward targets Ly and his American pilot would mark by colored smoke bombs as part of the CIA-directed secret war against North Vietnam from 1961 to 1975. In Long Chiang, Ly's wife, My Thao Vue Ly, waited in fear with the couple's four children that her husband might not return.

As Ly and four Hmong companions walked toward their planes, high above Long Chiang the pilot of a U.S. fighter jet detected movement in the jungle below. The pilot dove, firing a rocket armed with an anti-personnel cluster bomb containing 670 tennis ball-sized bomblets, each filled with 300 metal fragments.

The Hmong soldiers never heard the approaching jet before the bomblets exploded.

A one-centimeter piece of shrapnel the size of a pea sliced into the right side of Ly's head, traveled through his brain and lodged in his head just above the ear lobe, two centimeters from the left side of his skull.

"One of my cousins who knew I was in the area found me laying on the ground about five hours later and carried me on his back to the hospital about a mile away. It was all very scary. It was a nightmare," said Ly, 70, who now lives in Appleton and with his wife operates the Valley American Asian Foods grocery store at 930 W. Elsie St.

Ly is one of thousands of Hmong soldiers who fought in support of the United States during the Vietnam War.

He holds no anger toward the U.S. pilot who dropped the bomb that injured him.

"It was a mistake," Ly said, shuffling his left foot as he rounded a corner in the store to complete some paperwork.

Protecting their country

Ly was 13 years old when he joined the Hmong army in a generations-old battle against communist North Vietnamese forces that controlled much of South Vietnam while attacking Hmong and Royal Laotian military forces.

"We had to protect our country," Ly said.
Ly fought for years against the communist Pathet Lao, attaining the rank of drill instructor.
His work, and his partial knowledge of the English language, caught the eye of an influential neighbor, Gen. Vang Pao, commander of the Hmong military forces.
Pao, now 81, is considered a hero by the Hmong and lives in exile in California. Pao visited Ly and his wife several times during the past few years.
As a forward air controller, Ly's job was to spot targets for U.S. bombers.
Missions were restricted to Laos, which is situated between North and South Vietnam on the east and Thailand on the west. Cambodia meets the southern end of Laos while China and Burma touch its northern border.
The missions were hazardous. Ly's plane crashed several times, once from gunfire and once from a lack of gasoline.
"One time he almost drowned when his plane landed in a pond," My Thao said. "I am just lucky he is alive."
Ly spent from 10 days to three months in Thai hospitals recuperating from injuries suffered in the crashes, but always returned to duty, except for the day friendly fire ended his military career.
"I just could not go back after I was shot in the head," Ly said.
After getting shot, Ly saw a fellow soldier fall dead. The soldier was one of as many as 20,000 Hmong soldiers to die during the secret war. Including civilians, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Hmong died during the war, about 10 percent of the Hmong population.
When Long Cheng fell in 1975, the conquering Pathet Lao captured Hmong military records and began a hunt that continues to this day for Hmong soldiers and their families.
Ly and his family escaped first to the Laotian capital of Vientiane and then to Cambodia.
Ly's family came to the United States in May 1976 with few possessions.
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"We destroyed our photographs and other personal things. If we had been caught with them we would have been killed on the spot," My Thao said.

Making ends meet

The couple and their children traveled to Wisconsin and settled in the Fox Cities with the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay as their sponsors.

They first lived in Combined Locks before moving to Kimberly. On May 18, 1984, the couple became naturalized U.S. citizens.

They purchased the grocery store in 1982 as a partnership and became the sole owners in 1987. They moved to Appleton five years ago.

"We are dependent on ourselves and need help from everyone to be our customers," My Thao said.

Ly, who doctors say is 75 percent disabled due to his brain injury, often sits on a metal folding chair while serving shoppers.

"He is not allowed to lift anything over 25 pounds," My Thao said.
Despite diagnosed difficulties in comprehending and expressing thoughts in his own language as well as troubles with math, Ly cheerfully takes care of business.

Hidden behind the counter is a framed copy of a Post-Crescent front page from 1984 featuring their conversion to U.S. citizenship.

Several other newspaper clippings, including the July 2003 death and funeral of My Thao's father, Nhia Pao Vue, rest in folders in the store.

My Thao said it would be a good thing if the U.S. and Wisconsin allowed Hmong veterans of the Vietnam War to be buried in veterans' cemeteries, but said it's more important to compensate the former soldiers financially for their support of the United States.

Ly receives $300 in monthly Social Security payments and is eligible for Medicare benefits. There is no retirement pay for his nearly 20 years in the Hmong military or his service under the CIA.

It isn't the first time Ly felt the sting of reluctance by his adopted homeland to financially commit to his care.

According to a May 1979 letter from a physician to the diocese regarding a neuropsychological evaluation possibly leading to an operation removing the metal fragment in Ly's head, the physician wrote that it would not be fair for Ly to undergo the operation and hospitalization and "that the taxpayer would be straddled with the payment of such a surgery and hospitalization."

"I have told him the cost would probably be around $6,500 for both and he would have to pay that from his own funds," the evaluating physician wrote.
Financially, Ly doesn't want much to see himself and his wife through their days.

"Our children are all grown now and moved away. The last one moved to Milwaukee in 2009," Ly said. "We have enough food in the store to support us with rice and noodles, which we eat every day."
It's the $300 a month that bothers him.

"I've talked to many of my friends and they receive $600 or $700 a month in Social Security payments. I don't understand why I get $300 a month," Ly said.

But Ly isn't about to challenge the government of the land that sheltered him from persecution and even death in his Laotian homeland.
"I am happy living here," Ly said.

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