In the winter of 1968, a 13-year-old boarding student at The Stony Brook School got a letter from his father sent from their village in Vietnam’s central highlands.
It was hardly the sort of news a young child should have to receive under any circumstances, let alone so far from home.
“I got word that Viet Cong came from everywhere, destroyed the village and took my brother-in-law and my closest cousin,” said the student, Hakin Lienghot, now 63 and a social worker living in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “They shot them in front of the people of the village. My father told me I shouldn’t come home.
“I couldn’t even cry, to be honest with you,” Lienghot recalled during a reunion with old friends in Stony Brook. “I didn’t know how to respond other than overwhelming sadness.”
As the nation grapples with whether to welcome refugees dislocated by American conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Lienghot’s story is that of one child who was eventually made homeless by war, and of a Long Island community that welcomed him.
“There was a lot of excitement in the neighborhood and the community that we were bringing him, a boy who was living through the fighting in Vietnam, into our community,” said Sheila Burns, a former Stony Brook resident now living in Virginia. Her late husband, Frank Fleeson, helped lead an effort by the local Jaycees to bring Lienghot to America, and her family was one of several who put him up in the five years he attended school on Long Island.
Lienghot was a member of a loosely knit group of indigenous tribes in Vietnam known as Montagnards, or mountain people, who faced oppression by both government and guerrilla factions within Vietnam. Their push for equal rights angered the government of South Vietnam, while the willingness of some Montagnards to assist U.S. GIs led to reprisals by communist rebels. Few Montagnard children at the time received more than a rudimentary education.
In 1967, an American physician doing charity work among the Montagnards for Project Concern, an international aid group, offered to help send a child to high school in the United States. Lienghot, whose Montagnard father ran a missionary church, had more schooling than other children his age and was chosen to go.
“Most of the young men in my village who were in the eighth grade were much older, in their 20s, or late teens,” Lienghot said. “I was much younger, so I fit the profile.”
Lienghot’s December 1967 arrival in Stony Brook tapped into a vein of American idealism, those who were around then remember.
As Long Island residents were experiencing increasing unease regarding the Vietnam War’s impact on innocent civilians, the Three Village Jaycees—or Junior Chamber of Commerce—arranged for a Vietnamese child to attend The Stony Brook School. The school provided Lienghot with full tuition, and room and board for his high school years.
“The Jaycees were very excited that we were able to do this for him,” said Burns, who remarried. “People told me they saw my picture in the paper and everything. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a big thing.”
Lienghot said almost everything about his arrival in New York left him in awe. He saw snow for the first time in his life. His neck hurt from looking up at New York City’s skyscrapers.
But within weeks of his arrival, awe turned into anguish. The 1968 Tet Offensive and its monthslong aftermath saw emboldened Viet Cong insurgents sweep into villages in South Vietnam seeking to root out individuals considered sympathetic to American troops or the Saigon government.
Members of his family were considered suspect. An evangelical preacher from Kansas had helped his father set up the missionary church. And one of Lienghot’s cousins had served as an interpreter for the U.S. Army’s “Green Beret” 1st Special Forces Group.
“The Viet Cong, they came to our village and attacked, and they shot his cousin and” his brother-in-law, said the interpreter cousin, Kgrong Lienghot, 76, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. “They killed them and so many other people. So many people ran into the jungle and couldn’t come back.”
It became apparent that Hakin Lienghot wouldn’t be able to go home, either.
For the duration of his time in high school, and later when he went off to college in 1972, he stayed with members of the Three Village community during holidays and summer breaks.
Bruce Dodd, a former English teacher at The Stony Brook School who tutored Lienghot at his home that first year, said he could sense a sadness had enveloped the child.
“I could look out my window and see him as he would come to my house for the lessons,” said Dodd, 86, now of Rouses Point, New York. “He would be looking up in the trees when he was happy, and kick along in the sand when he was troubled.”
“I noticed he was different, suffering and sad during that period,” Dodd said. “But he kept it to himself. He never wavered. He more or less was holding that inside of him.”
Lienghot said deteriorating conditions in Vietnam, which culminated with the 1975 fall of Saigon, made it clear that his life would be in America.
After graduating from The Stony Brook School, he went to Barrington College in Rhode Island, married a classmate in 1977, had two children and established a career. He became a U.S. citizen in 1981.
But the bonds formed with the Three Village community endured.
He has returned twice so far this year to visit with people who first welcomed him when he was a teen nearly 50 years ago.
“He’d spent Christmas with us and summers, would mow the lawn, would baby-sit my five kids,” said Mary Ann McAvoy of Stony Brook, who with her husband Ed continued to host Lienghot after he went off to college, and who attended his wedding. “He was just one of the family.”
He said although it was hard not to be with his father when he died at 95 two years ago in Vietnam, America is now his home.
“Yes, I felt very sad when my father passed, it was very hard not being there,” said Lienghot, who said he viewed the funeral service via Skype. “But Vietnam seems like a distant memory. “I’m not sure I belong there.
“The Three Village area has been very special,” he said, “and I will always feel at home there.”
Who are Vietnam’s “Montagnards”?
- Scores of indigenous tribes living in Vietnam’s Central Highlands are often referred to as “Montagnard” or Mountain People. Other tribal names include “Anak Cu Chiang” or “Dega,” referring to the “Original People.”
- At the dawn of the Vietnam War, the governments of both Vietnam’s communist north and pro-Western south vied for the loyalty of the Montagnard tribes.
- Beginning in 1961, U.S. Special Forces began recruiting Montagnard soldiers to fight against the Viet Cong, eventually training some 40,000 indigenous troops.
- Their alliance with U.S. forces led to reprisals by Viet Cong rebels, who often burned their villages during the war. Many Montagnards were sent to re-education prisons following the 1975 defeat of South Vietnam. Others fled to Cambodia or Thailand, and fought for independence from jungle hideouts.
- In 1986, members of the Montagnard resistance surrendered to the Thai government and agreed to be resettled to the United States. The first group of 212 Montagnard soldiers settled near Fort Bragg, in North Carolina.
- Today there are an estimated 1 million Montagnards living in mountains about 150 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City.
Source: Montagnard Human Rights Organization; Center for New North Carolinians at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.