FORT POLK, La. – For many Americans, their heritage and history serve as a powerful part of their identity. It’s a source of strength which many Soldiers draw from to help them not only know who they are but who they work every day to become.
In the wake of the Cambodian Civil War in the early 70s, following America’s withdrawal from neighboring Vietnam, genocide wrapped the countryside in fear. It was a period in time that would come to be defined by the infamous ‘Killing Fields.’ Under the Khmer Rouge Regime it is estimated that 3.3 million lost their lives according to “After the Killing Fields” by Craig Etcheson.
Pfc. Karen Heu is acutely aware of these tragedies, since her parents lived through them. Heu serves as a logistics Soldier with 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.
“My parents are from the mountain in Laos and during the cleansing in the Killing Fields after the Vietnam War my parents got scared and wanted a better life for their families,” said Heu. “That’s when they learned about America.”
Years before they would meet, Heu’s parents each migrated from Laos, in secret, to escape the killing. They took jobs to acquire the money they would need one day to leave for the US.
“They went across the jungles and rivers and came to Thailand. My father was there for six months and my mother was there for almost a year. They farmed there, saved up their money, applied for their visas and came to America,” said Heu.
Heu’s father moved to North Carolina initially, working and attending school before going to California where her mother had been living since leaving Thailand.
“They met at a cultural event,” said Heu. “They began talking and exchanging letters and married in ’92.”
Heu detailed her family’s story to a post theatre filled with her fellow Soldiers during Fort Polk’s Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month observance. She also used the opportunity to educate attendees in Asian culture.
“My parents’ journey here was hard and I’m glad that I shared this because I want people to know,” said Heu, “but if they only take away one thing from it, I want them to know that I’m Hmong.”
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Hmong origins can be traced to China but in recent centuries, the people have begun to spread throughout much of Southeast Asia and beyond. It estimates that 2.7 Hmong people still inhabit China and almost 200,000 live in the United States.
“I just want people to know there’s something different. I’m not Chinese, I’m not Korean, I’m not Mongolian, I’m Hmong,” said Heu.
Fort Polk’s observance also showcased a number of other cultures with performances of Korean Tea Kwon Do and traditional island dances from Hawaii, the French Polynesian Islands, and Samoa. The Haka, a war dance from the Maori culture of New Zealand, was also presented.
“What we did today was remembering and honoring where you’re from,” said Spc. Ketesemane Autele, a Soldier with 5th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th BCT, 10th Mtn. Div., from American Samoa. “It’s about expressing culture and showing pride.”
Spectators at the observance said they learned a lot and left with a much deeper appreciation of the many cultures that make up America and its Army.