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Posts Tagged ‘Lt. Colonel Lay Prum’

Documentary Film,Other Musings,Vietnam War

April 18, 2013

Why I Fight Part 2

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Last September I wrote a blog for this site titled “Why I Fight” about, in part, an Ethiopian refugee whom Betty and I met in Washington, DC. That gentleman was in the US because he made a documentary film that angered his government. For his own safety, he was forced to leave his home.

Last month, at one of our Clovis, California, screenings I met another man who came to the US as a refugee from his country.

The gentleman I met in Clovis was originally from Cambodia. His name is Lieutenant Colonel Lay Prum, or as it would be represented in Cambodia, Prum Lay.

Lt. Colonel Prum escaped from Cambodia in 1976 and his story is one that illustrates the harrowing experiences of a lot of folks who come to the US to escape the variety of tyrannies the world has to offer.

To refresh memories, in 1975 Cambodia underwent a violent regime change that led to the Khmer Rouge—a Maoist regime with a particularly vicious way of re-educating its citizens—taking over the country. During the Khmer Rouge’s rule from 1975 to 1979, an estimated two million Cambodians died in what has since been classified as genocide. In 1979 the Vietnamese forced the Khmer Rouge out of power.

Back in the 1970’s, Cambodia was involved in fights with the Vietnamese Communists who used Cambodia’s border regions as bases from which they infiltrated into South Vietnam. American forces bombed these regions, creating chaos in the border regions between Vietnam and Cambodia. The Cambodian government, besides fighting the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies, soon became involved in a civil war with Cambodian communists, or the Khmer Rouge.

Enter Mr. Prum Lay, who graduated from Phnom Penh University in 1968. He enlisted in the Cambodian Army and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1972.

In 1973, then 1st Lieutenant Prum was involved in rescuing four American journalists whom he found in two black Mercedes stranded on Route 3 between Phnom Penh and Takeo Province during an attack by his Cambodian forces to take back a village the Viet Cong had overrun. He and his troops carried the Americans to safety.

On April 17, 1975, the Communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. By then a major in the army, Prum Lay, in danger of losing his life, convinced the Khmer Rouge that he was a taxi driver. They asked him to drive a taxi and later put him to work in rice paddies.

On May 20, 1976, Major Prum Lay escaped into Thailand. Fortunately for him, he encountered a man who had served with him in the Cambodian Army, and that man told the major that since Prum Lay did not have a passport, he would be put in jail by the Thai government. Instead of going into a refugee camp, Major Prum hid out in an abandoned schoolhouse until June 15, 1976.

On that date, he and another Cambodian friend managed to reach the United States Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. He was interviewed by the staff at the US Embassy and was granted refugee status but remained in Thailand pending the appointment of a sponsor here in the States.

On August 15, 1976, Major Prum Lay came to Spokane, Washington, where he became Mr. Lay Prum.

To me, what follows is what is most moving about this story. In spite of the obvious cultural impediments, Mr. Lay Prum became the liaison between the residents of Spokane and the considerable Cambodian community that moved there after the fall of Cambodia. He was also, among other things, the owner of a restaurant and helped out in the local schools as a math teacher and ESL teacher. He also went back to school and learned how to be a welder and went on to work for a number of Spokane companies.

In 1986, Mr. Lay Prum moved to Sonoma County, California, before moving on to Fresno, California, in 1988. There are over 50,000 Southeast Asians living in the Fresno area. Allies of our government in the wars we fought overtly in Vietnam and clandestinely in Laos and Cambodia, they fled to the US after their governments were defeated in the various conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s.

In Fresno, Mr. Lay Prum remade himself yet again. Something we often have a lot of freedom to do in this country if we have the drive to do so. He became a drug, alcohol and mental health counselor for Fresno County until his retirement in 2010. Now he is involved in veterans organizations that recognize his (and other Southeast Asian warriors) service during the wars of the 60s and 70s. What he and his compatriots endured is not forgotten.

In 1975, the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge was viewed by a large segment of the American public with a big ho-hum. As a nation, we had grown tired of our involvements in Southeast Asia. I would even venture to say that some Americans were rooting for the Khmer Rouge to win their war against the Cambodian government. But history has since exposed the Khmer Rouge regime as being a murderous government that killed millions of Cambodian citizens.

Mr. Lay Prum, Lieutenant Colonel Lay Prum (he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel after joining United States National Defense Corp. on November 13, 2010), was lucky to get out of that hell and into a place where he was allowed to become what he wished to make of himself.

Like that Ethiopian filmmaker I mentioned earlier, Lt. Colonel Lay Prum can say what he wants to say, and he can change what he does for a calling. In spite of all our knots and warts, we Americans offer folks a lot of opportunity to create a useful existence as well as respite from the chaos of their native countries.

I have said for years that I am not sure why I went to Vietnam and fought. I don’t know if it was adventure I sought, or heroism, or if it was patriotism. I suppose the reason changes from day to day and from one experience to the next. But today I want to say that seeing men like the Washington, DC, Ethiopian and the Lt. Colonel live a life that allows them to succeed and speak their thoughts without fear of being killed or going into prisons or forced labor camps—that’s why I fight.