Brothers in Arms: 'It is worth it to fight for freedom'

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cha Yeng Lee, in the living room of his Sheboygan home, talks about his experiences in the Special Guerrilla Unit during the Vietnam War and how the unit helped U.S. troops fight the Communist regime

Cha Yeng Lee recalls his 15 years fighting in the Secret War

Yer Lee considers her father, Cha Yeng Lee, a hero — for raising her and her brothers and sisters in their adopted hometown of Sheboygan, and for his sacrifices wh
en he helped U.S. troops fight the Communist regime during the Vietnam War.

Among the many framed photos and certificates hanging in his home, Cha Yeng Lee also has on display a Congress-issued Commendation and Citation for Vietnam War Service in Laos, dated May 14, 1997, recognizing the contribution made by him and other Hmong and Lao soldiers in the Secret War.

"I look up to him," said the 20-year-old nursing student at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan, the youngest of her father's six children. "He's guided me … he's always there for me."

This is why Yer Lee has been helping with the artwork on the Lao, Hmong and American Veterans Memorial, a to be dedicated July 15 at Deland Park in Sheboygan.

"I felt I can give something back to my father and the soldiers," Yer Lee said.

Thousands of Hmong soldiers died during the years of the Secret War, and Cha Yeng Lee, 69, who served from 1960 to 1975 in the Special Guerrilla Unit, says he was a hero simply for fighting — and surviving.

"I was not killed, and I would like to think I was one hero, because many other people were killed, and I survived," Cha Yeng Lee said through an interpreter.

The memorial being built in Sheboygan, Lee said, is special for him and his family. It will offer testimony of the role the Special Guerrilla Unit soldiers played in assisting U.S. soldiers during the war. Lee said he is thankful for the support of local government and the generosity of those who donated the money to build the memorial.

"It means a lot to me, because I am getting older now, and pretty soon I'll be gone," said Lee, who rose from the rank of private to captain during his service. "It is good for my children, and the future generations will know I am here and I am lucky because I didn't get killed."

Cha Yeng Lee talks about how he was wounded by a mortar attack in the Secret Army in 1964 during the Vietnam War. Lee was wounded by a mortar attack in 1964 during a skirmish in Padong, suffering injuries to his knee and left leg, pain he still can feel at times.

Lee was wounded by a mortar attack in 1964 during a skirmish in Padong, suffering injuries to his knee and left leg, pain he still can feel at times.

He said he joined the Special Guerrilla Unit because the Communists invaded Laos to take their farms and land.

"It is worth it to fight for freedom, to stay alive, to be owners of land," Lee said. "Our fight was justified because the Communists came and we did not like the Communist regimes."

On excursions over the border to South Vietnam during the war, Lee fought side-by-side with U.S. soldiers.

"Our job and duty was to protect them, so they won't get killed," he recalled. "We must do whatever it takes to protect them."

Lee was recently married for a second time. His first wife, Xia Xiong, died in 1990. Since 1996, he and his children have resided in Sheboygan, where he says they have found a good life — far different than that of being "plain farmers" in Laos, with little money. He is now retired, after working several jobs in Sheboygan.

"We have everything," Lee said about living in Sheboygan. "We have cars, we have telephones, TV … I think America is much better than in Laos."

On the walls of the family's comfortable upper flat on Sheboygan's north side are many photos and plaques, reminders of the war, as well as a framed recognition of his service, and his certificate of U.S. citizenship. Five of his children still live in the area, and some have attended college.

"I'm hopeful for the younger ones that they try to go to school and they try to work to support themselves because I cannot do that (anymore), and I am pleased to see the younger ones have a brighter, better future," Lee said.

Yer Lee said her father, as an elder, traditional Hmong, is respected by many people in the community.

"Many people come to ask him for help," she said.

As for Cha Yeng Lee, the Lao, Hmong and American Veterans Memorial in his new hometown will be a reminder of all of the help the soldiers of the Special Guerrilla Unit gave to this country.

"It is something that (shows) we helped commit to help the United States during the Secret War and the memorial will tell all the story why we helped the U.S. government," Lee said.


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