Fighting longer than the USA: The 24-year war of Y’Khiem Ayun
*Editor’s note: After publication, a new GoFundMe was created (for tax purposes) in Y’Khiem Ayun’s name instead of in Liana Adrong’s name. The link has been replaced in this article.
Y’Khiem Ayun is working on his United States citizenship, but he fought in Vietnam far longer than any native-born American veteran did.
The official period of direct U.S. military involvement in that country is 1964-73, but those nine years are only part of the conflict, or series of conflicts, collectively known as the Vietnam War. That larger war is described by most Western historians as lasting 19 years and 180 days, from Nov. 1 of 1955 until April 30 of 1975. During the USA’s official involvement, its average draftee served for either 12 or 13 months, depending on whether in the Army or Marines. Medal of Honor winner Col. Robert L. Howard has been cited as the U.S. citizen who spent the most time in actual combat, with five tours of duty between 1965 and 1971.
Ayun’s Vietnam War lasted from 1967 until 1991. He fought four times as long as any U.S.-born veteran was in the field, and over twice as long as the country in which he now lives and is becoming a citizen of was officially involved.
A Montagnard of the Rhade tribe, Ayun was trained by Green Berets much like the ones quoted in my Jan. 9 article “Trump administration raises concern in the Triad Montagnard community.” As a member of the Civilian Irregular Defense Forces (CIDF), he fought alongside and under the command of U.S. Army Special Forces from 1967, when he joined at the age of 14 until the U.S. withdrawal in 1973. But unlike the U.S. soldiers who trained and initially commanded him, his war didn’t end then.
He kept on fighting, as part of both the CIDF and ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, also known as the South Vietnamese Army or SVA), until 1975, when the crumbling and corrupt Saigon government surrendered to the one in Hanoi, and the country was forcibly unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Ayun didn’t surrender. In 1975, doing that could result in summary execution for a member of the indigenous tribes collectively known by the French word for “Mountain People.” Those ethnic and cultural minorities had long been oppressed and despised by both the capitalist South and the communist North. Seemingly abandoned by the U.S. they so fiercely supported, they now faced retaliation from the winning side. Ayun kept on fighting as a member of the loosely-organized United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, or FULRO (the acronym is from the French “Front Unifié de Lutte des Races Opprimées”).
FULRO was originally a political nationalist movement seeking freedom for not just the overwhelmingly Christian Montagnards, but the Muslim and Hindu Cham and Buddhist Khmer Krom, all of whom had been long oppressed by the ethnic Kinh Vietnamese. After 1969, it evolved into a fragmented guerrilla insurgency against both the communist South and anti-communist North, being opposed to all forms of Vietnamese rule. Cambodia was the primary supporter of FULRO, although some aid was sent by China.
Often operating out of Cambodia, Ayun fought the army of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam until his capture in 1991. His Vietnam war lasted a quarter of the 20th Century.
When I interviewed Ayun on Jan. 29, I asked him if he any idea why they didn’t kill him, as the special forces veterans I’d interviewed last Fall claimed was routinely done by North Vietnamese soldiers to Montagnard prisoners. Through his interpreter, Ayun indicated he didn’t know why he was spared, although he said it’s possible that his being able to walk might have been a factor, something his injured older brother hadn’t been able to do when captured 23 years before.
For whatever reason, he was not shot in the head and dumped beside a jungle trail like his sibling, whose captors, according to Ayun, hadn’t wanted to carry a wounded prisoner on a stretcher. Instead, Ayun was sent to prison. After his release a year later, he lived in Pleiku, which had once been a stronghold of the Bahnar and Jarai tribes of Montagnards but was now predominantly Kinh. There he remained, released but not a free man, and under constant police observation until 2001.
In that year, Ayun became a fugitive after taking part in an anti-government protest. He and some friends fled to Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, a six-hour walk through the jungle from Pleiku. For the next year, he lived in a series of refugee camps established by and under the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a U.N. organization that’s twice won the Nobel Peace Prize for its mandate to protect refugees and assist in their voluntary repatriation or resettlement to a third country. In June of 2002, he was brought to Greensboro by Lutheran Family Services and has lived in Greensboro ever since.
His life here has not been easy. Despite his struggle to learn English, he was able to find employment for some years, but age and his old injuries gradually took a toll, and he suffered a stroke in 2014 that left half his face paralyzed. He’s had two surgeries for his decades-old wounds and nearly died from an infection caused by shell fragments still in his body.
He’s never had a Greensboro home of his own. He never married, has no children, and no family. He currently sleeps on a bed in the living room of a younger Montagnard friend who rents an apartment in the Summit Avenue apartment complex where five Congolese immigrant children died in a fire last May.
He’s on Medicaid and gets SNAP benefits, but has no other source of income. That’s why Liana Adrong of the Montagnard Dega Association of Greensboro created the GoFundMe “Y’Khiem, a Forgotten Soldier.”
Adrong told me she first met him in 2017 when he came to her office at 611 Summit Ave. because he had an upcoming doctor’s appointment in a nearby town and needed a ride. She found a volunteer to drive him, with an intern riding along as interpreter.
“Now, he is 65 years old with no money and with no family, and he is unable to work due to the injuries he suffered fighting in support of our American troops,” wrote Adrong on the GoFundMe. “Our goal is to raise $5,000 to help him with medical co-pays, prescription costs, and to make his life easier.”
When I interviewed him in his friend’s small apartment, which is cleaner and better-maintained than the complex’s dilapidated exterior, in which several units are condemned. I began by asking about his life before his 24 years as a soldier and guerilla fighter. Through his interpreter, he told me that he was born in 1953 in Ban Mê Thuot, the capital of Đak Lak Province and the largest city in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and that he began in his training with U.S. Army Special Forces when he was 14.
“When they formed the group, it was for the Montagnard people,” he told me with the help of Liana Adorng’s translation. “So, everybody was just joining because it was formed for them, for the Montagnard people only. I heard about it from friends who had joined.”
I asked him about the Americans he worked with.
“I remember their names, but I don’t know if they’re still living or have passed away. In my company, some of the names were Queen [possibly “Quinn”], Lloyd, and Wood. A man named Jackie was the company leader. Those are the only names I remember; it’s been so long!”
His fundraiser states that he fought for MIKE Force, the acronym for Mobile Strike Force Command, in which U.S. Army Special Forces, and sometimes the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), trained and led the indigenous CIDF. Ayun told me that he fought with them for eight years, which would mean he did so for two years after the official U.S. withdrawal. He said that during this time he received four major injuries.
The first he said, came in 1971 from “a communist B40 shell,” citing an alternate name for the RGP-2, a shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon supplied by the Soviets.
“Shrapnel went through the right side of my thigh and emerged on the left. And then on the left shoulder. That one incident got me twice, both times shrapnel.”
In 1973, he was injured by the same type of shell. “This was the worst one. My left leg was broken, and fragments were embedded all over my entire left side. I got one in my stomach, too.”
Later that year, he said he was hit in his left thigh. “Again, shrapnel.” Then, in March of 1974, “that one still fresh in my head,” he was hit again in the abdomen. “That fragment is still inside.”
He said that, after American withdrawal, he never back went back to his village. “I joined in the FULRO group, and fought with them all the way into 1991 when the communists captured me in Pleiku.”
For the next 16 years, he said he was almost constantly in battle. “We fled to Cambodia and fought from there because there was no homeland to remain on. The local people in that region hid us from their own communists while we fought the Vietnamese ones” after Cambodia’s own communist party took control of that country in 1975 and ruled until 1979.
But that fighting often took him back across the border, “I was captured in 1991, and they put me in prison until 1992.”
For the first month of his year-long captivity, he said he was tortured. “The room I and another man were kept in was about this big, with no lights, no windows. Each day were given a bowl of rice, a cup of water and a cup of salt, not each, split between us.” Describing this, he wept.
“We were in that room in darkness for a month; then they transferred us to another room with a group of people. Our feet were shackled, and our hands were tied. We were still receiving the same amount of rice and salt, but the room was bigger, and there was light and other people. Sometimes they gave us dried corn. Eventually, they gave us more water and food, and not so much salt, not a big bowl like before.”
He said he believes the purpose of the salt was so that, when hungry and in darkness, they would eat it, and with so little water, die from dehydration. After that first grueling month, he was regularly interrogated for the rest of the year and then released.
“Some of the group I’d been fighting with, and who had not been captured, had just been brought to the U.S.”
Ayun said he believed that the Vietnamese government knew about this, and it was why he was released, as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was seeking better relations with its former enemy.
“I just wanted people to hear about his story,” Liana Adrong told me after the interview. “He’s not the only one who’s like this. Many of the elders in our community are in this situation. Getting his story out there will help more with our fundraising goals. He can’t apply for disability or anything like that, because he’s not a citizen yet. He is having his us citizenship interview in February. That’s one positive thing he’s looking forward to.”
Since that interview was conducted, Adrong messaged me that Ayun passed his citizenship interview, and is waiting for his swearing-in ceremony to be scheduled.
Before we left that day, Ayun told me a bit more about his long-dead family. “My parents were older than many in our village and didn’t have the money to send me to school. The only option was the army. But nobody forced me, it was my own free will, and I wanted to make a difference.”
His parents had four sons, but no daughters and three of those sons were killed by either the Viet Cong guerillas or the North Vietnamese army.
“My older brother, in our town’s police, they shot in front of everybody. My second oldest, they captured and took out into the jungle. He never came back. My last died around 1968. He was the wounded one it was too much trouble transporting. I’m glad to share, so the truth is known. Once you have it on the paper, it will be good for people to read.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.