Two soldiers reunited after 35 years; one an American and one an American ally — a Laotian “Freedom Fighter” during the Southeast Asian conflict.
For all Michael Olson knew, his friend Khao Insixiengmay was long dead.
The two discovered they were both Minnesotans, reuniting in the Twin Cities in late 2006. Last summer, Khao brought his family to the Olsons’ Rush Lake home in the Perham area, where they paid a visit to the “In Their Own Words” Veterans Museum. It was no doubt the first Laotian veteran to ever set foot in the museum.
Khao had been fighting the communists; including the Vietnamese, the Chinese and the Pathet Lao; since he was 18 years old, beginning in 1962. He was wounded twice. Twice he was a prisoner of war–the last being a 12-year stint in captivity in Vietnam; before immigrating to the U.S.
Since there really were no pleasant endings to any of the stories from the four decades of strife in southeast Asia, Olson had accepted the probability that Khao was yet another victim.
Ironically, Khao had been living in Minnesota for 20 years. His American friend Olson had no idea whether Khao was even alive–until he read a November 2006 article in the Minnesota Legionnaire newspaper about “Freedom Fighter” Khao Insixiengmay.
“That’s Khao!” exclaimed Carol Olson to Mike, as she was reading the Legion newspaper.
When Mike made contact with Khao, who works at the Lao Cultural Center in Minneapolis, he found out that Khao had been looking for him, too, ever since he immigrated to Minnesota.
“He had been looking for me basically every day…he had a photo of me, and he would show it to people and ask ‘do you know this man?’” said Olson.
Olson, who retired after serving 22 years active duty, followed by nearly 20 as a civilian recruiting specialist for the Army Reserves; served in Vietnam in 1967-68.
A Fertile, Minnesota, native, Olson and his wife Carol have owned property on Rush Lake since 1987, and moved to the area permanently in 2004.
Olson was a “Pathfinder” commander. He described the Pathfinders as the “first ones in, last ones out,” because they set up communications in forward areas, guiding troops and aircraft into the combat area.
Captain Olson sponsored Captain Khao at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in 1971, for the 36-week Infantry Officer’s Advance Course. Khao was promoted to major after completing the course, and he was back on duty with the Royal Lao troops–among America’s staunchest allies in Southeast Asia. Khao was one of 500 Laotian officers who completed training in the U.S.
Laotians were exceptional soldiers, said Olson, who became very close to Khao professionally, academically and socially.
Olson describes Khao as a “gentleman, a family man and very proud of his service to Laos and the U.S.” Unfortunately, after spending a total of nearly 13 years of his life in what were essentially concentration camps, Khao’s health is not good. “For what he went through, it’s amazing he has lived as long as he has,” said Olson. Khao is 63 years old.
In 1975, as Vietnam fell, so did Laos. The Royal Lao troops were told they were being gathered so they could join the new country, but instead over 30,000 were put in prison camps.
Major Khao was a prize prisoner because of his war record. He was sent to an area on the eastern side of Laos on the Vietnam border where there was little chance for escape. For several years, he was joined by his family in captivity, but when his wife got sick, she and four of their children went back home.
“Even after I was in camp for 10 years, I’d still hear my name on the radio. They were still using me as an example of a traitor to the country. But I never killed any Pathet Lao, only Vietnamese,” said Khao. The prisoners did subsistence farming, and were allowed a small amount of rice most days. They often survived on potato leaves.
In 1987, after 12 years of captivity, Khao was in bad shape and, because of his sickness, they allowed Khao to go home. He had no money and little chance of making a living. Fortunately, a friend who had been released earlier and immigrated to the United States sent him a ticket.
Khao himself is now a U.S. citizen, but he is not entitled to any government benefits. None of the native southeast Asian people who fought for the United States during the Vietnam War are eligible for benefits. He is not considered a veteran despite 12 years of service under U.S. command.
Khao is still struggling to bring his grandchildren to America. He was able to bring his wife and four children to America, but not two other children. One of them has since died, and he has run into a stone wall trying to bring his grandchildren over.
Overall, though, he has loved his experience in America. He is one of 300 Lao veterans in Minnesota.
Khao said he would like to see more recognition for the Lao veterans in the United States, and for the role they played in the war.
And he would like to see more comradeship between the Lao veterans and the American veterans they fought alongside for so many years.
Olson attended the “Royal Lao Armed Forces Day”, held in Minneapolis last February.
“The Lao veterans have so much pride with what they did…it was amazing to see them, standing in formation,” said Olson, who was named an honorary board member of the Lao Veteran Association of Minnesota.
Even though Laos, and essentially, the United States, “lost the war,” the Lao veterans remain loyal and dedicated to the U.S. By the time most of Southeast Asia fell to the communists in 1975 the U.S. had almost entirely pulled out. Still, the Lao vets don’t seem to harbor any resentment, said Olson.
“I think the resentment comes in because they aren’t able to qualify for any veteran benefits,” he added.