(WGHP) — Sitting around the kitchen table with Y Siu Hlong, looking at pictures, is not what it would be with most people.
“This is the photograph when we were in the jungle at Thailand border,” Y Siu says, holding a picture of a young man holding a military rifle, crouching on a dirt road. This is of Y Siu, himself, in the days when he fought the Communist Viet Cong after the Americans had pulled out of the Vietnam War.
Beyond the fighting, life in general was dangerous for Y Siu and others known as “Montagnards,” the name the French colonizers of Vietnam gave to all of the indigenous people who lived in the country’s central highlands. The French term translates simply into “mountain people.”
“After the Americans left after the fall of Saigon, they went into hiding because they were actually targets – the Vietnamese wanted to kill them because they helped the Americans, similar to what’s going on in Afghanistan right now,” says former WGHP-TV photographer and producer David Weatherly. Weatherly was part of a team that did a documentary on the rescue and resettlement of 200 Montagnards in the Triad in 1986.
For years, the American government denied they knew anything about people from the Vietnam mountains who helped American Special Forces as they fought the Chinese-backed North Vietnamese.
But, in 1986, the US government had a change of heart, largely due to the work of American Special Forces soldiers, many of whom had been stationed at Fort Bragg. Weatherly says it was the right thing to do.
“If people help you, you’re obligated to help them and I think that we really, for many years, dropped the ball with the Montagnards and I would hate to see us do the same things with the Afghanis,” says Weatherly, about how the Montagnard situation is similar to what’s going on with Afghanis who helped the US in the war there over the last 20 years.
In the 35 years since the Montagnards were resettled in the Triad, they’ve done well. In fact, for Y Siu Hlong’s daughter, Cassandra – an actor and dancer – the things her father overcame are astounding.
“Honestly, it’s kind of hard to believe because it’s just experiences that are so outlandish that it’s almost hard to believe that those things are actually true,” says Cassandra. “It just makes me appreciated being American-born and having the blessings and luxuries that I have.”
See some of the original footage of the Montagnards’ arrival in America in this edition of the Buckley Report.