I wondered what it would be like to meet him. Boungeun was the Lao man who had courageously helped Fred Branfman to collect the illustrations from villagers who had fled the bombing in Xieng Khoang. He had risked his life to sneak the drawings from the refugee camp under watchful eyes of the camp guards. In 1970, the world was unaware of the covert, massive bombing campaign that was undertaken by the U.S. in Laos. Without Boungeun, Fred and the illustrations, the bombing in Laos could have remained unexposed for years.
Yet, Boungeun’s name is not in any history books. The world has never heard of him. He remains an unsung hero.
The illustrations that were collected over 30 years ago by Bounguen and Fred would eventually make their way to the Lao American community and become the catalyst for Legacies of War. And tonight at dinner, we met the stranger whose life was so interwoven with ours.
He is a slim man, in his 60s, with a slight slur in his speech from a stroke suffered several years ago. He is a humble man with a gracious smile; he has lived a hard life since the end of the war. He remains a rice farmer, and just today, came back from the rice field, where he and his wife were working. Tonight, we honored him as our hero.
Fred teared up as he thanked Boungeun for helping to collect the drawings and above all, for loving the people of Laos. There had never been any recognition for Bounguen’s contribution, and tonight we gave him a standing ovation. We were so fortunate to be in the precense of Boungeun and Fred, unsung heros in their time, but great heros in ours.
As I reflected on how long it took to recognize what Bounguen did over 35-years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other courageous, unsung heros there were among us in Laos. Individuals who loved the people and took great measures to save and protect innocent lives. And as we travel throughout Lao, how many are among us – living the humble life of a farmer, market merchant or perhaps a tuk tuk driver.