GREEN BAY, Wisconsin — 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.
“I work here because of the mission of the church. … If you work for something you believe, I think that’s important,” he told The Compass, Green Bay’s diocesan newspaper.
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.”
In 1969, the 16-year-old Thao joined a special unit of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Laos working against the communists. It also was called “the Secret Army” and made up of Hmong people.
“The Hmong people had a history of fighting communism. … That’s why we got the special duty,” he explained.
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 percent 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.
In 1975, as war wound down, people tried to escape from Laos into Thailand. However, Thao had been to Thailand and didn’t like the conditions there. So he decided to stay, even though that meant detention in a POW camp.
Life in the camp — with 500 to 600 prisoners — was hard, entailing heavy labor and what Thao now calls “brainwashing.”
He learned to survive, though “I felt hungry all the time,” he said. “I felt depressed. I felt many things.” He wanted to escape, but he didn’t.
An opportunity to leave the camp came in early 1979 at the Hmong New Year. He was a good prisoner, so he was allowed a leave to visit his parents. He was told to return in 30 days.
After walking for two days, he reached Long Cheng, the village where his family lived. He stayed there for about 15 days and then became aware his life was in danger. So he left his parents and siblings — he is one of seven children — to stay with cousins for a while.
He wanted to go across the border to Thailand, but he knew he had to return to Long Cheng first — he had a brother to rescue from a local work farm: Shoua. The two finally made their way to Thailand, crossing the Mekong River.
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 arrived in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, 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 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 to Wisconsin as well. In 1986, the time was right for his family to leave Laos for Thailand, and eventually the family was reunited.
Thao credits the bishops of Green Bay for supporting refugee resettlement.
Sometimes, he admitted, his job is not easy. Some refugees are angry about their situation, but he counsels the newcomers that “things take time in relocating your life.” He reassures them from his own experiences.
“Refugees are not just (going) for a better life, but for freedom” from the fear of persecution, he said.
“Home is where you can be safe and treated with dignity. … This is my home because this is where I am treated right, I have freedom. It’s the land of opportunities,” he said.
“I am thankful to the American people who opened their mind and heart to refugees who come to this country. That’s our strength.”
Kasten is associate editor of The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.
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