Footsteps Of My Father
From the desk of our KOUL-Mander in Chief, Sera Koulabdara
February 4th, 2023 would have been my father’s 73rd birthday if cancer didn’t claim his life in 2017. My siblings and I still cherish precious memories of him throughout the year and especially on this day.
If you are a long-time reader of our newsletter, you may be familiar with my father’s background as a doctor who worked on victims of UXO and landmine accidents. Today, I want to take you back to when his journey started and how the American Secret War shaped his life.
As the eldest of nine children and firstborn son, my grandparents had high expectations for my father and sent him to Vientiane to continue his education when he was 12 years old. He lived at the temple with Buddhist monks and was assigned a few chores and ran errands in exchange for his room and board.
My father was an exceptional student and earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Lycėe de Vientiane (high school) where he studied from 1964 – 1968. While these were the most terrifying years of my father’s life, he always spoke so fondly of Lycėe de Vientiane and last year, I finally found the courage to walk in his footsteps.
As soon as I set foot inside the schoolyard, I felt my father’s presence alongside me, guiding me through the courtyard. It was like getting to know him as a child, a child who grew up in wartime.
The voice inside my head recounted the stories that my father told me. Oh, how he would reminisce about playing soccer, badminton, and Pétanque. He loved this school so much despite the challenges he faced having his education constantly disrupted due to the chaos of war. Countless classes were canceled, sometimes for weeks or months. When school did resume, my father and his classmates had to be ready to leave and hide in a moment’s notice when danger approaches.
Somehow, he graduated. How much resilience must one have to make it through war?
As we walked towards the back of the school, my guide pointed to the dormitory where my father would have stayed as a student from a different province. She also took me to two buildings in the older parts of the school, the sight left me speechless.
These two aging structures, with one still in use, were the most heavily bombarded areas of the school. Despite efforts by teachers and the local community to fix the damage, the scars from the bombings were evident
How could anyone bomb school buildings? Unacceptable. I gave in to my feelings and collapsed in tears. All sorts of emotions that I didn’t acknowledge surfaced. Grief, anger, deep sorrow, and then there was a stillness and calm as I thought of how resilient my father and his classmates were.
All I could see were visions of screaming children and teachers desperately rushing to safety. It reminded me of the haunting image illustrated by a 16-year-old who was forced to watch his classmates and school burn. Did my father witness the same thing?
History has always been my favorite subject. After my father passed away, I rummaged through old photos, documents, and notebooks to try to piece together his life. I desperately yearned to know who he was before he became my dad.
What was offered to me in school was mainly European history, with a limited study of other parts of the world. My required American history courses did not include the U.S. connection to Laos. We probably spent an hour on the Vietnam War and Cambodia was, at best, a footnote.
Here at Legacies, we believe everyone, especially Americans, should know the history of the American Secret War. Accurate information and resources about the war–like books, articles, and films–should be easy to access for all. This is why we created our Legacies Library and have dedicated valuable staff and board time to expand it.
It is not enough to just know our history; we must share it, recognize its impacts on the lives of people today, and take action. This is exactly the mission of Legacies of War and I hope you will continue to follow and join our journey in a way that is meaningful to you.
Images courtesy Sera Koulabdara.