Elgin veteran Chindavanh "Chin" Keomuongchanh says he knew next to nothing about the U.S. Navy when he enlisted 33 years ago, but simply wanted to serve the country that gave his family so much.
Keomuongchanh, 52, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Laos, was honored as May's veteran of the month by Erica Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, at a ceremony Wednesday at Veterans Memorial Park in Elgin.
His family moved to Illinois after the Vietnam War to avoid persecution by the Communist regime in their native country. Keomuongchanh enlisted in February 1981, two weeks after graduating from Elgin High School.
"I just wanted to serve the country," said Keomuongchanh, who became a U.S. citizen in 1986.
"Instead of going to college, I decided to go into the Navy because I decided this was just a good way of paying back the country for everything that the country gave to our family when we moved here as refugees."
He even turned down a college scholarship, a decision he has never regretted, he said.
"I think (serving) is the best thing one person can do," he said. "All the men should serve the country for the experience and to see what is outside the country."
Borggren said in a news release that Keomuongchanh "carries forward a tradition of both immigrants and Asian-Americans making a difference in ever expanding roles over the decades.
"And back here at home, he is a wonderful example of what veterans bring back to our communities in terms of a lifelong commitment to serving others."
Keomuongchanh retired from active duty in February 2001 as a Petty Officer 1st Class in logistics after deployments to the Indian Ocean, Western Pacific, Mediterranean and Persian Gulf theaters. He also served 10 years in fleet reserve.
He now owns an insurance agency in downtown Elgin, and serves on the board of the Lao American Organization of Elgin.
He also spearheaded efforts to recognize Laotian veterans who fought with U.S. troops in the Vietnam War.
Ryan Yantis, communications manager for the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, said Keomuongchanh is the first Laotian veteran he's aware of that was recognized since the monthly award was established around 2005.
Keomuongchanh said it was especially significant to receive the award during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
"I think it's a very historic event for the Asian-American community," he said. "I don't believe Elgin has ever had anyone selected as such before, so this is a special thing for us."