CHICAGO — Em Ramangkoun and his family floated away from their homeland under cover of darkness 34 years ago. Three of his five children huddled with him and his wife in a small boat. Two more clung to the trunk of an uprooted banana tree.
Ramangkoun had been an army officer in Laos, serving the government against a communist insurgency as the war in neighboring Vietnam spilled over the border. The covert involvement of the CIA and the U.S. Air Force could not turn the tide, and when the government fell in 1975, Ramangkoun and thousands of other military personnel were sent to tropical gulags.
It took five years for him to escape, round up his family and stealthily cross the Mekong River into Thailand. From there they came to the United States, joining hundreds of other Laotians refugees in the northwestsuburb of Elgin.
The Laotian migration and the war that produced it are near-forgotten episodes of American history, but now, several dozen veterans of the conflict are trying to get a monument recognizing their service placed at Elgin's Veterans Memorial Park.
They say they've raised more than half of the roughly $9,000 needed to pay for the granite slabs and bronze plaques that will stand by other veterans' tributes in the riverfront park, and hope to find the rest before July 19, a date Illinois has proclaimed as Lao American Veterans Day.
"It's very important for me because we want to show the next generation how we came here," said Vang Chanthasalo, 63, a former military pilot. "We stood by the U.S. Army. We worked together. That's why we came here."
The conflict in Laos, a landlocked nation surrounded by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and China, is usually described as a "secret war." It began as a post-colonial power struggle and evolved into a proxy battle between Cold War superpowers.
Ostensibly neutral, Laos became a shipping lane for North Vietnamese military supplies and a source of manpower for CIA officers who wanted to tie down communist forces in a guerrilla war. U.S. Air Force planes dropped 4 billion pounds of explosives on the country as American officials obscured their involvement.
The conflict was already in motion when Ramangkoun joined the Royal Lao Army out of high school in 1961. He and his fellow soldiers spent more than a decade trying to repel communist forces, sometimes succeeding, other times giving way.
The balance was tipped in 1973 when the U.S. removed its forces from the country as part of the Paris Peace Accords that ended American military involvement in the Vietnam War. Two years later, communist revolutionaries overthrew the Lao government and set out to "re-educate" their conquered foes.
They sent thousands of military personnel to remote jungle camps euphemistically known as "seminars," forcing prisoners to scratch out an existence. The men had to build their own huts out of bamboo and grow or catch their own food. Many starved or died from sickness, Ramangkoun said.
Some, though, marshaled enough strength to escape. Former Army communications specialist Thongone Vongphakdy, 78, said he sneaked away from a camp with 13 other prisoners and spent more than three months walking over heavily forested mountains, subsisting on nothing more than fruit and leaves.
"No meat, no fish, no rice," he recalled.
His goal was Thailand, perched across the mile-wide Mekong River on Laos' western border. Refugee camps there housed thousands of Laotians who had fled the new regime, and starting in 1976, the U.S. government began to bring over many of them as part of a resettlement of people displaced by communist victories in Southeast Asia.
Elgin, despite its relatively modest size, was one of the main destinations in the Midwest. Joan Berna, then community services director at the city's YWCA, said Elgin's many churches clamored to help with the humanitarian crisis.
Vongphakdy, who finally made it to Thailand, came over in 1978, joined by his wife and seven children. Chanthasalo arrived after making a daring escape of his own, and the onetime pilot worked restaurant and home remodeling jobs while taking classes in welding.
Berna said the refugees earned a reputation as good workers — she remembered a businessman marveling about one Laotian employee, "When he doesn't have anything to do, he sweeps up around his machine" — but the jobs they got were generally menial.
Vinya Sysamouth, executive director of the Center for Lao Studies in San Francisco, said that was just one of numerous difficult adjustments confronting Lao refugees, many of whom had been subsistence farmers in rural villages.
"When we are placed in the U.S., it's like being fast-forwarded 100 years," he said. "Add to that the different climate, the language, the culture and the lack of education. It makes it very difficult for someone to survive."
Roger Warner, author of "Back Fire: The CIA's Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the War in Vietnam," said the war and exodus has produced a complicated legacy.
"On one hand, it's completely valid to say America abandoned them," he said. "On the other hand, when (the U.S.) finally woke up to its commitments and took in some of the refugees, it allowed them and their children to really have a shot at the kind of prosperity they never could have had in the countries they came from."
Though they fought with American forces, former Laotian military personnel are not eligible for federal veterans benefits. But about 50 Laotia veterans have joined Elgin's American Legion post, finding common cause with those who have served in U.S. military units.
Former post Cmdr. Tricia Dieringer said the Laotians have been some of its most active members, taking positions of responsibility and volunteering to serve in the honor guard for military funerals.
"Anyone who has fought with us, who has helped us in any way in our struggles, is someone we respect and call a brother-in-arms," she said.
Most of the former Laotian fighters are retired, having blazed the trail their children and grandchildren now travel. The Elgin monument, Ramangkoun said, is meant as a remembrance of their sacrifices and accomplishments, capturing a piece of history in stone and bronze before it fades.
"The children, the young, they don't know why we are here," he said. "They know our country is far, far away. When they see the plaques, they will understand."