The people and faces of America are diverse, as are the stories of veterans who risked their lives to defend our country.
Venerable Phra Ajahn Bounthanh Prasavath, 73, is a respectful man who leads a life of quiet contemplation as the Chief Abbot of Wat Lao Buddhovath Temple in Smithfield.
For the past three decades, he has lived on 22 acres, surrounded by beautiful trees and the occasional call of birds. Speaking through an interpreter, he says it’s a life he could never have imagined during the long and physically difficult days as a prisoner of war in his native Laos.
It was August 1966 when Prasavath, then 18, was recruited by the CIA and US Special Forces to fight Communist forces in Laos, according to his discharge papers. He had studied to become a monk, training to be a man of peace in the Buddhist tradition.
âWhether you are a Buddhist or any religion – Catholic, Muslim, Hindu – they teach you to do something right, not wrong,â says Prasavath.
However, his life and his country were at stake.
âNo one wants to kill anyone but we have a lot of enemies there. They wanted to conquer our country, âhe explains.
So Prasavath joined a friend and started training to defend Laos. He worked for six months under the watchful eye of Major Sar Phouthasack to become a radio operator as a member of one of the US Army’s special guerrilla units, or SGU.
Each radio operator carried a telegraph with his radio. Their bags were heavy and they had to be light on their feet. They were responsible for ambushing supply lines or enemy troops. Prasavath was one of the 155 radio operators that Phouthasack trained during the war.
Prasavath’s first mission “was in a road surveillance team along the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” where he served alongside Phouthasack in the MR3 military region of Laos, adjacent to the country’s intersection with North Vietnam. and South Vietnam.
âSometimes they would send radio operators to the front lines or behind enemy lines to rescue American pilots when they were shot down,â says Phouthasack.
Although Prasavath himself did not save any pilots, he risked his life every day to help American troops and repel invaders from North Vietnam. Over 35,000 SGU members died in the war.
The risk to SGU members did not end with the US withdrawal, however. After the Paris peace accords in 1973, Prasavath, Phouthasack and others who had served alongside the Americans remained extremely vulnerable.
Prasavath has become a captive.
âThey grabbed a lot of SGU radio operators and said we were going to give you a new ‘seminar’,â he says. “You have to learn something new between the new and the old government.”
Prasavath says that in re-education camps, “They control everything. They limit where you have to go, when you have to go. They watch you all the time. Every morning. Every day they make you work hard.
âIf you don’t listen to them, you will die. They will kill you. To survive you must do, step by step, every day what they allow you to do.
âCommunists don’t care if you are a Buddhist monk. They make you work hard. Everyone is working.
For nine years, four months and 15 days, Prasavath did as he was told. Then one day he saw his chance to escape.
âMy wife is deceased,â he said, and asked for permission to hold a funeral. “So they gave me a pass and said, ‘Only a month you go there [to Thailand] and come back. ‘”Prasavath accepted the terms of his captors and fled on foot, never looking back.
Arriving at a refugee camp in Thailand a little over a year later, Prasavath again encountered obstacles. He told camp officials that he was a soldier and that he had escaped from a prisoner of war camp.
“They asked, ‘Who were you working for?'”
He told them, âI worked for the CIA, SGU.
The people allowing access to the camp wanted to know: âWhat did you do there?
He explained that he was a first lieutenant in SGU. With those words, they brought him a map and asked him to show where he had spent most of the past decade. He located the camp on the map. They nodded silently and the questioning ended.
Applying for asylum in the United States, Prasavath contacted another former radio operator who lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to sponsor him. He arrived in the United States on August 1, 1987.
âWe are good people,â Prasavath said with a smile. “I am so happy to become a US citizen.”
Prasavath spent two weeks in Connecticut before moving to Providence and completing his studies to become a monk. For the next five years he searched for the perfect site to build a temple in Rhode Island.
Eventually, he found 22 bucolic acres in Smithfield where he built a welcoming community that could accommodate hundreds of people for special events.
âWe welcome everyone,â he says. “If you are my friend or my enemy, or a different religion, you are welcome.”
When Phouthasack heard about Prasavath’s escape, they reconnected.
âRight now in this country I still have 33 radio operators, spread across the country,â Phouthasack said.
It’s a tight group.
âNow, whenever the temple has a ceremony, we will all go. ”
Many visits have taken place since, although Phouthasack lives about 90 miles away in Windsor, Connecticut.
Phouthasack translated for Prasavath during this interview.
Behind the two men, the Abbot’s American uniform was proudly hung, surrounded by photos of elected officials who had visited the temple or made their acquaintance.
There is a photo of the mayor of Woonsocket, Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, in front of a Laotian flag that she hoisted at the town hall. Congressman David Cicillin is pictured during an event at the temple and there is a close-up image of Phouthasack with US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
Whitehouse’s father served as US Ambassador to Laos in 1973, Phouthasack is quick to point out.
Both men are clearly proud of their status as US citizens. Prasavath says he applied for a special prisoner of war license and was delighted to hear DMV workers acknowledge his sacrifices.
Although they spoke different languages, Prasavath clearly remembers that they said, “Thank you, prisoner of war.”
While their journey to America included many trials and sacrifices, they appreciate their good fortune here in New England.
âWe are good people who survived to become US citizens. â¦ We are lucky. Many people were unable to escape. They were killed while fleeing. Some people swam in the Mekong and died there. Some were shot along the Mekong River.
Neither man lost his opportunity. While Prasavath was building a temple, Phouthasack pursued a career in business and served as the veteran leader of the special guerrilla unit, advocating for their full recognition of their veteran status by the US government.
Both men attribute their success to their American citizenship.
Said Phouthasack, âThis country allows me to do anything. They give me opportunities. … I have two jobs to support my family. I have eight children. Two of my grandchildren have become engineers. ”
And there is no denying his status as a member of the US military.
âI joined all the organizations: VFW, AMVETS, American Legion, 82nd Airborne. I am honored. It’s my country.”
Yet Phouthasack believes the future of his nation, the United States, is in peril.
âWe are all Americans,â he says. âWe are to stand together as one nation under God. “
Prasavath, the veteran SGU radio operator, prisoner of war survivor and Buddhist monk, smiles and nods in agreement, adding, âThis is America. We are America.
Wednesday, Kent County Detachment of the Marine Corps League Monthly Meeting, 6:30 pm, ext. 9404, 29 S. Main St., Coventry.
Friday, yoga at the Providence Vet Center.
Sunday, The Armory’s third annual exhibit featuring crafts, antiques and authors to benefit Westerly Armory, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Westerly Armory, 41 Railroad Ave. Free admission.
November 9, FEMA Career Forum and Resume Workshop for Veterans, 11 a.m. to noon. Prior registration required.
November 9 Veterans Day Virtual Symposium sponsored by Outreach, Transition and Economic Development. The event will feature female veterans, a center for minority veterans, and a center for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships. The symposium will highlight the resources of veterans and the community. 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., via WebEx. Information: ajc.lincoln.ne.gov/event/virtual-veterans-day-symposium.
November 11th, Veterans Day Breakfast, sponsored by Bishop Hendricken High School and Iggy’s Boardwalk. Two seats, 8:30 am and 9:30 am Iggy’s Boardwalk, 885 Oakland Beach Ave., Warwick. Free for all veterans. RSVP to Peter Thomas by November 9, [email protected], or call (401) 889-5424.
November 11th, Macaroni and Meatball Lunch for WWII and Korean War Veterans, 1 p.m., Coventry Memorial Post 9404, 29 South Main Street, Coventry. No charge, but reservations are required. Call (401) 828-9705 before Wednesday, November 3 to confirm your attendance.
November 18, Operation Stand Down RI virtual financial literacy course. A one hour session will cover budget management, techniques for improving your credit score, and home buying information. 10 a.m. Receive the zoom link when you answer Ty Smith at (401) 383-4730.