Transplanted Southeast Asian Warriors Adapt to Life in North Carolina : Vietnam War: The Montagnards fought the communists for 17 years, after the CIA and the U.S. Army recruited them. Life in the U.S. has been difficult.
For 17 years, Y Tho Buon Krong and his ragtag guerrilla army lived in the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia, hunted by tigers, pursued by communists, fighting a war that never ended.
“I kept thinking, where are the Americans? Why have they forgotten us?” said Krong, 56, who like thousands of fellow Montagnards, as the tribes of Vietnam’s Central Highlands are called, was recruited in the early 1960s by U.S. Army Special Forces troops and the Central Intelligence Agency to fight the Viet Cong.
And fight they did. Even after their lands were bombed and defoliated, even after U.S. troops withdrew, even after the Vietnamese communists won the war, the Montagnards kept fighting.
Krong and 400 fellow tribesmen fought until 1979, then dodged their enemies until their surrender in 1992. They yielded their weapons to U.N. forces in Cambodia and flew to North Carolina, where they live today, strangers in a strange land, struggling with English and working as menial laborers.
The journey of the Montagnards, from forests where they once hunted with crossbows and sacrificed buffalos to appease cosmic spirits, is perhaps the most surreal footnote to the Vietnam War.
Today, about 600 Montagnards live in this state, the largest concentration outside of Vietnam. The women generally work as hotel maids, and the men are employed in factories, where former warriors assemble simple machine parts and electronics. When not working, they gather for parties, where pigs are sacrificed and sometimes a homemade jar of rice wine is passed around as they contemplate life in what they call “the concrete jungle.”
“The story of the Montagnard people is almost unbelievable,” said Paul Campbell, a retired Special Forces sergeant who lives in Raleigh and was the first American to recruit the highland tribes in 1961.
“I keep telling people the Montagnards are America’s forgotten Vietnam veterans and they deserve our help,” said Campbell, who has been active in resettling Montagnards in North Carolina.
To Kay Reibold, director of the Vietnam Highlands Assistance Project here, the Montagnards “are survivors. But there is also a lot of sadness, a lot of grief and rage. They are a remarkable people, but theirs is not a happy story.”
French colonists in Indochina named the Montagnards, using the French word for “mountaineer,” and some Montagnard tribes refer to themselves as “Dega,” their word for “children of the mountain.”
The former children of the mountain now live in small, crowded apartments scattered around Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte. Krong lives with two younger Montagnards in a spare, clean apartment decorated with a picture of a tiger donated by their sponsors at a local church. The men eat simply: rice, with bits of meat and eggplant and hot peppers. They like fast food but not its cost. They cannot get rice wine, so they prefer light beer made with rice, and at parties, cognac.
Montagnards cling to the bottom rung of the jobs ladder. Until a recent traffic accident, Krong worked in a photocopy shop. His roommate, Y Phut Nie, 34, spools electrical wires in a local factory for $5 an hour, the going rate.
H Dam Arul, 33, one of relatively few Montagnard women who escaped the jungles, lives in an apartment with her husband and three young children, two of them jungle-born. Her husband works as a school janitor. He has a car and a driver’s license, one of the first hurdles for the Montagnards.
Arul has had little time to study English. Her day is spent getting the children to and from school, cleaning and cooking. She ventures to shop or attend church. The Montagnards are known for having beautiful voices.
“I miss my family,” Arul said. “I miss my village. But my baby is free here, and I feel safe.”
A communal, clannish people, the Montagnards were brought to North Carolina in part because the Special Forces are based at Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville and because the State Department sought to keep them together. Lutheran Family Services, which contracted with the State Department, has been primarily responsible for helping them find sponsors, homes, jobs and medical care. Malaria was widespread.
Now, almost all employable Montagnards have jobs, and as soon as the men earn enough money, they buy cars. A few own homes.
“It is really phenomenal,” said Frank Williams of Lutheran Family Services. “One year ago, these guys were living in the jungle. . . . Now they have jobs. They’re not on welfare.”
But they are having trouble adjusting. Montagnards traditionally lived communal lives, sharing resources and bartering among themselves. They did not have to deal with leases, credit checks or car insurance. Many miss their homeland and their way of life.
“I am not happy, and I am not sad. I’m mixed,” said Y Guk Cil, 44, who recently became a U.S. citizen. In Vietnam, he said, “you had your house, you had your fields, your family, you could always live.”
In America, Cil said, “you wonder how long you will have a job. Or if you get sick, how are you going to pay the rent?”
Many of the new arrivals do not speak English. During an interview with a reporter, three Montagnard men who share a small apartment were watching television and puzzling about “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
The men had put labels on household objects. A lamp, for example, is “pui kden” in the Montagnard’s Rhade dialect, one of dozens of tribal dialects.
Y Tho Buon Krong, who fought in the jungles for 17 years, would like to return to the Highlands but knows that he cannot because the Vietnamese would arrest him, he said. Krong and other Montagnards said they hoped that the U.S. government can persuade Vietnam not to persecute their people.
“I like it here OK,” Krong said. “But even if I didn’t like it, what could I do? This is my place now.”