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Obama Honors Laotian Refugees' Son Killed in Afghanistan Battle

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane, Laos, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane, Laos, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

In Vientiane, Laos, on Tuesday, President Barack Obama paid tribute to U.S. Navy Master-At-Arms Petty Officer 1st Class (Expeditionary Warfare Specialist) John Douangdara, the U.S.-born son of Laotian refugees who was killed in the worst single-day loss of life for the U.S. in the war in Afghanistan.

"Our nations are connected not just by policies, but also by people like John Douangdara -- whose family settled in our state of Nebraska -- and after high school joined our military, served with our elite Special Forces, and ultimately gave his life for our nation," Obama said in an address to the Laotian people at the Lao National Cultural Hall.

"Johnny" Douangdara's parents, Sengchanh and Phouthasith Douangdara, came to the U.S. as refugees from the U.S. "Secret War" in Laos in 1979. Their son, who would be assigned as a dog handler with SEAL Team Six, was born in South Sioux City, Nebraska, in 1984.

When military representatives came to her door in August 2011 to confirm his death, his mother, Sengchang Douangdara, said, "He is a son of the Lao people," Obama said in his speech. "He sacrificed for us, and we honor him."

Douangdara was on his second tour in Afghanistan, following three in Iraq, when he and his dog, "Bart," went with SEAL Team Six members aboard a CH-47 Chinook helicopter as part of a quick reaction force coming to the aid of Army Rangers under attack in Afghanistan's Wardak province.

As the Chinook approached the landing zone, it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed. All 38 aboard -- 30 U.S. service members, seven Afghan commandos and an Afghan interpreter -- were killed. Douangdara is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Obama said he came to Laos as the first American president to visit the country in the spirit of "reconciliation" with the Lao people, whose children are still maimed by the cluster bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes more than 40 years ago.

"I realize that having a U.S. president in Laos would have once been unimaginable. Six decades ago, this country fell into civil war," Obama said.

"And as the fighting raged next door in Vietnam, your neighbors and foreign powers, including the United States, intervened here. At the time, the U.S. government did not acknowledge America's role. It was a secret war, and for years, the American people did not know," Obama said.

"Over nine years -- from 1964 to 1973 -- the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs here in Laos -- more than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II. It made Laos, per person, the most heavily bombed country in history," Obama said.

Obama stopped short of apologies but said he was doubling current U.S. funding to $90 million to help clear unexploded bombs dropped during the long-ago war.

"Given our history here, the U.S. has a moral obligation to help Laos heal," Obama said at the start of Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) summit meetings in Laos on security, terrorism and regional issues.

The amount was "more than we were expecting," said Simon Rea, the Laos country director for the Mines Advisory Group, which aids victims of unexploded bombs and landmines.

"I think that it is a very significant move, and it will move us forward very quickly," Rea told USA Today.

Obama said that "the remnants of war continue to shatter lives here in Laos. Many of the bombs that were dropped were never exploded. Over the years, thousands of Laotians have been killed or injured -- farmers tending their fields, children playing. The wounds -- a missing leg or arm -- last a lifetime."

In the course of his meetings this week, Obama was also expected to focus attention on the continuing search for the missing-in-action in Laos from the Vietnam War. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Office, 301 Americans are still unaccounted for in Laos.

The U.S. plans to conduct four Joint Field Activities (JFAs) in this fiscal year for remains in Laos. Each JFA involves up to 53 U.S. personnel plus their Lao counterparts in excavations throughout the country for periods of 30-45 days in each JFA, agency said.

"On behalf of the American people, especially our veterans and military families, I thank the government and the people of Laos for your humanitarian cooperation as we've worked together to account for Americans missing in action," Obama said.

"And I'm pleased that, as a result of this visit, we will increase our efforts and bring more of our missing home to their families in America."

Eleven of the missing Americans in Laos (remains of two have since been found) resulted from an incident in March 1968 that finally received public acknowledgment on Sept. 21, 2010, when Obama made the long-overdue posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard Etchberger, of Hamburg, Pennsylvania.

Etchberger's mission at a radar site on a Laotian mountaintop near the North Vietnamese border was among the most secret of the U.S. "Secret War" in Laos. It was so secret that when the White House announced in 2010 that Etchberger would receive the Medal of Honor, Air Force officials acknowledged that he was, technically, not even in the Air Force when he fought heroically to keep his position from being overrun.

Etchberger had been among a group of volunteers who signed papers resigning from the Air Force to become, nominally, employees of Lockheed to undertake the mission. The idea was to give them, and the U.S., deniability if they were captured that the U.S. was at war in Laos.

The administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson and later administrations decided that Etchberger's story could not be told. The family was told that he had died in Vietnam. Twenty years after he died, the family was invited to a private ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington for the posthumous presentation of the Air Force Cross to Etchberger, but what happened to him was still classified. The Pentagon ceremony itself was a secret.

At the Pentagon, Etchberger's sons -- Steven, Richard and Cory -- "were told that their dad was a hero but they weren't told much else," Obama said at the 2010 White House awarding of the Medal of Honor. "Their father's work was classified and for years that was all they really knew."

But their mother, Catherine, who has since passed away, knew but "she had been sworn to secrecy, not even telling her own sons," Obama said.

"This was a disgrace," Obama said of the treatment of the Etchberger family. He told the sons, who accepted the award on behalf of their father, that "Your nation finally acknowledges and fully honors his bravery. It's never too late to do the right thing."

Etchberger and 15 other "former" airmen, two CIA agents and a forward air controller were assigned to Lima Site 85, a radar station used to direct U.S. warplanes against targets in North Vietnam and Laos.

On the night of March 11, 1968, the North Vietnamese scaled the mountain and attacked the Americans below. Etchberger and the others retreated to a ledge. "Dick and his men were trapped on the ledge," Obama said.

"The enemy lobbed down grenade after grenade, hour after hour," Obama said. "Dick and his men would grab those grenades and throw them back, or kick them into the valley below. But the grenades kept coming. One airman was killed and then another. A third airman was wounded, and then another. Eventually, Dick was the only man standing."

As a technician, he had no formal combat training and had only days before been issued an M-16 rifle, but he fought on. At first light, the rescue helicopter appeared. Etchberger repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to load the wounded into the helicopter's sling to be hauled to safety.

With the wounded aboard the helicopter, Etchberger grabbed the sling himself and was hauled aboard. "They had made it off the mountain. The helicopter began to peel away," Obama said, and then a North Vietnamese round pierced the deck of the helicopter. Etchberger was fatally wounded. He died before the helicopter could reach medical help.

-- Editor's Note: The number of missing Americans in the March 1968 incident has been updated.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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