Child of War: An Airman’s journey to freedom

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Rito Smith
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

“It’s the only thing I remember vividly,” said Airman 1st Class Seng Thao, a medical records technician assigned to the 6th Medical Support Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base (AFB), Florida. “I was at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and had just got off the airplane when I was amazed at what I saw.”

Thao didn’t see anything that would seem unusual to most people, though for him it was unique. He saw a spiral wishing well, the kind where you put a coin into a slot and it spirals slowly down into the center until it drops into a bucket underneath.

“I was amazed by how simple the engineering was, and at that moment even at the age of two, I knew my life here in the U.S. was going to be different,” said Seng Thao. “It was going to be interesting, just like the spiral wishing well I saw.”

Seng Thao was born in Ban Vinai, Thailand, and grew up in a refugee camp. He lived there until he was two years old, when he immigrated to the U.S.

“My people, the Hmong, were recruited by the CIA to be part of a secret war.,” said Thao. “After the Vietnam War ended, the Pathet Lao (communists) began persecuting the Hmong people. They had to leave their homes and march through the jungle of Laos to seek refuge in Thailand, where I was born a child of war.”

Being so young, Thao was sheltered so he was unaware of some of the hardship the Hmong people were enduring in their day-to-day lives.

“We had no food, medicine, clothes, or ammo to protect ourselves from harm,” said Chong Thao, Airman Thao’s father. “After years of fighting back in the jungles of Laos, we decided to flee to Thailand and eventually to the U.S.”

Although Thao couldn’t remember much of his past, that didn’t stop him from learning as much as he could about his culture, and what life may have been like had he and his family not immigrated to the U.S.

“I remember very little of what life was like in Thailand, but what I do know is from seeing pictures of my family in the refugee camp,” said Thao. “However, growing up with parents who endured a lifetime of struggles and hardships has allowed me to understand what life was like growing up in Ban Vinai.”

Thao’s father, Chong Thao, remembers the pride he felt when he learned his son was following his dreams by joining the Air Force.

“I was so proud of him,” said Chong Thao. “Seeing him do what he loves by serving his country makes me very happy.”

Airman Thao said he joined the Air Force because he believes he has a unique responsibility to make a difference for his people, the community, and to pave the way for the youth of tomorrow.

“I have this rare opportunity of being ‘the first’ of many things,” said Thao. “Being a first generation immigrant and being in the Air Force grants me the opportunity to use my experiences and knowledge to give back to my people and my Air Force.

Thao grew up watching movies about the U.S. military, and all of the heroic acts they accomplished. Those movies made a lasting impression, and inspired him to enlist.

“From seeing military members on T.V., in pictures and face-to-face, I always knew I wanted to join the Air Force,” said Thao. “It was always a matter of when for me.”

That time came when Thao was getting ready to graduate college with his Associates degree in business administration.

“I felt like I had to do it then, or else I never would be able to,” said Thao. “With my graduation date set, I enlisted and never looked back.”

Thao often thinks about how he can use his life skills to give back to the Air Force. He hopes to give back his knowledge, his experiences, his ability to be flexible, and someday, his leadership skills.

“I am proud to be an American Airman,” said Thao. “I want to make a positive difference in the Air Force, and I want to be able to look back and say ‘Yes, that is my Air Force’ and I helped make it what it is today.”