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Article updated: 11/1/2013 8:18 AM

'Secret War' veterans to be honored in Elgin

Chin Keomuongchanh, left, poses with state Rep. Keith Farnham at the Elgin Veterans Memorial Park. Keomuongchanh is working with Elgin and state officials to provide greater recognition for Lao veterans who assisted the United States during the Vietnam War.

Chin Keomuongchanh, left, poses with state Rep. Keith Farnham at the Elgin Veterans Memorial Park. Keomuongchanh is working with Elgin and state officials to provide greater recognition for Lao veterans who assisted the United States during the Vietnam War.

 

Courtesy of James Harvey Photography

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By Jerry Turnquist

A conflict called the "Secret War" in which thousands of Lao soldiers were recruited to assist the United States during the Vietnam War is about to gain more attention in Elgin.

On Friday, Nov. 1, a resolution signed by Gov. Pat Quinn recognizing the contribution of these men will be read in Elgin. A week later a similar one will be read by Elgin Mayor David Kaptain at the Nov. 6 Elgin City Council meeting.

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Both proclamations are largely due to the efforts of Chin Keomuongchanh, an Elginite born in Laos, who has been working to gain these veterans the recognitions and benefits he says they deserve.

The Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s in which the United States provided military support to South Vietnam to stop the advance of Communist North Vietnam is well recorded in the history books. A lesser known fact is that North Vietnam advanced into South Vietnam using the Ho Chi Minh Trail which cut through neutral Laos, said Keomuongchanh.

As noted in the Elgin proclamation, Lao soldiers and airmen were recruited secretly by the United States. They engaged in guerrilla warfare and fought alongside the United States.

These soldiers rescued downed American pilots and defended American outposts. Many were injured, tortured and killed. Others became prisoners of war.

Keomuongchanh says that following the war many fled to Thailand for refuge and eventually immigrated to the United States. While many settled in California, a number also choose Elgin for their home. Elgin has a large Lao population, adds Keomuongchanh -- a number that is difficult to determine because many were not counted in the last census.

The Elgin proclamation notes that the city will recognize July 19 each year as "Lao Veterans Memorial Day," explains Keomuongchanh. "This is the day that Laos gained its independence from France in 1949 -- a country that colonized Laos during Napoleon's reign in the 1800s.

"This is the same day that many government agencies including the Lao army began," he adds.

Keomuongchanh says he is also working with Lao veterans to add a plaque to the Elgin Veterans Memorial Park. The text proposed will read, "In memory of Lao veterans who fought side by side with U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War. We will never forget."

The upcoming recognition is long overdue, according to Keomuongchanh, who also wants to see Lao veterans receive burial rites, military funerals and other privileges afforded to American veterans. Estimates vary, but most agree there would have been many more men listed as casualties on the Vietnam Wall without the contributions of Lao veterans, explains Keomuongchanh.

• The Friday, Nov. 1 reading takes place at 10 a.m. at American Legion Post 57, 820 N. Liberty St., Elgin. Lao veterans and the public are invited.

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