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Fifty years ago, the Vietnam War wound down and soldiers who survived it returned home. More than 36,000 Montanans served in the war. For the 50th anniversary of its end, students at the University of Montana School of Journalism spoke with Vietnam vets across the state. Here are their stories.

A Hmong refugee and his childhood teacher remember resettlement in the Bitterroot Valley after the Vietnam War

Students of Sue Lair, who was the director of the English as a Second Language program in Corvallis, MT.
Students of Sue Lair, who was the director of the English as a Second Language program in Corvallis, MT.

After the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, which wound down 50 years ago this year, many Hmong families fled Laos and eventually settled in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. They adjusted to life there. Those already there had to also adjust to learn a new culture and help school-aged refugees assimilate.

Nicholas Pha didn't choose to live on a ranch between Victor and Corvallis in Ravalli County, Montana, but that's where his uncle had been set up. And his uncle was General Vang Pao, leader of the Royal Lao Army. His family and hundreds of others helped the CIA from Laos during operations before and during the war in Vietnam. And when the Americans left, those who had helped them had to flee too, says Pha.

Nicholas Pha was a Laotian refugee whose family—like many others—fled to the Bitterroot Valley to escape the Communism that was quickly spreading through the country.
Nicholas Pha was a Laotian refugee whose family—like many others—fled to the Bitterroot Valley to escape the Communism that was quickly spreading through the country.

"My father and a lot of other people who fought during the secret war for the CIA, either you leave or you would face genocide," said Pha.

Pha now lives in Minnesota, where there's a more established Hmong population. In the late 70s, a significant number of Hmong refugees came to Montana from camps in Thailand. It happened because the general, Pha's uncle, had a close relationship with a CIA agent from Missoula named Jerry Daniels. Daniels helped hundreds of Hmong people, including Pha and his family, escape before Communism took over in Laos. To reach the refugee camps in Thailand, the Hmong people had to cross the Mekong River. Nicholas remembers being carried by his grandmother.

"At the time I was really young, but she was carrying me and she says, you are a really big baby. I'm your grandma, but I'm taller than everyone else. So I can carry you," said Pha.

When Pha settled in Montana, it was on 400 acres. It was a former airfield for small aircraft. The General turned it into a farm.

"One of his dreams when, if he ever comes to America, he wants to be a farmer. In his life in Laos, it's always been fighting, fighting, fighting. People would ask me, you lived with the general. How was he? And I said, well, I know him from the family side. He was a great person. He's gone all the time, but when he's home, he spends time as much as he can with his kids and with us," Pha said.

Nicholas and his immediate family lived in his grandparents trailer. It wasn't a requirement to help on the farm, but families did so because of the generosity of the general.

"And one thing I, my mom said to me was, when we got there, our uncle, he just said, don't worry about the bills, about anything. The home that's here is for you guys to live in. If you want something outside of what I can provide, then you buy on your own, but room and board is free, electricity is covered. Just take care of yourself," said Pha.

Pha's family enrolled him in public school in Corvallis when he was around seven. That's where he met Sue Lair. She was the director of the English as a Second Language program there. She's retired now and lives in Corvallis. She really tried to make room for the refugee kids to tell their stories and be themselves.

Sue Lair was the director of the English as a Second Language program in Corvallis, Montana. She taught Pha after he immigrated to the Bitterroot Valley.
Sue Lair was the director of the English as a Second Language program in Corvallis, Montana. She taught Pha after he immigrated to the Bitterroot Valley.

"One of the girls, she and her family had to leave. She was 12 or 13 years old. And she was very tiny, even when I got her at 16. She had to carry a little baby. She wandered for days around the jungle trying to find her way. She eventually ran into some other Hmong village. And they took her in and they got her to the Mekong. And she was able to get across and into the refugee camps. And in fact, we had even five or six students who were adults. They were 21, 22 years old. And the guys had all been fighting in the war, and they had to swim across the Mekong River, which is a big old muddy river, and they were shot at, and one of them had a number of bullet wounds in his torso," said Lair.

Three interpreters helped translate and teach. Lair said the Bitterroot Valley community was accepting of the Hmong refugees and helped them with tasks like going grocery shopping and teaching them the English words for all the items they were buying. When Pha was at school, he remembers feeling like he belonged.

"When you come from a foreign country and you move to a country that is not yours and you're different, but you were accepted. When you go to school you didn't feel like you're an outsider. You're, you're part of the community," said Pha.

Pha did return in 2020 to the Bitterroot Valley to see the property.

"There was a lot of things that were gone. The, the mobile homes were removed. Other buildings were built there," said Pha.

Even though it's private property now, Phan knocked on the door hoping someone would let him drive around. No one was home.

"One of the things that I want to do when I was there was that I want to just go fishing at the creek that I went fishing all the time. Fortunately, it was good that down the road was another crossroad that crosses the creek. So, we drove down there and I did a little fishing, caught a cutthroat, and took a picture of him and threw it back, and I was like, yes," Pha said.

Pha says that most of the other families have gone to other places like Minnesota and California. Among those who left for California was his uncle. The general died in 2011 at age 81.

"It just makes me feel proud, you know, to think about them as refugees coming to this country and, and being able to assimilate and do well. And they worked so hard. It was about the three best years of teaching I think I had," Lair said.

"Montana was a beautiful place to have start a new life, and it's up to you to become who you want to be. It was really quite the journey and the experience," said Pha.

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