Casualties of War

Houston's Vietnamese now call Texas home, but they continue to be haunted by ghosts of the conflict that drove them here

Even refugees too young to understand were seared by what they saw. Judi Le, a Houston artist in her 20s who left Vietnam when she was five, still tenses visibly as she says, "I remember everything." As the Communists swarmed over Saigon, Le's family clambered onto a ship packed with refugees. "The U.S. soldiers told us not to bring a lot of items," she says. "We had to jump from one ship to another on the open seas. And this old woman, this grandma, she refused to give up her two suitcases. She was right in front of me and she fell into the sea. There were so many refugees, no one even tried saving her."

Churning over the ocean toward the United States, Le's family was crowded so tightly below deck with other refugees that they had to use cookie tins to relieve themselves. For emptying the pans out on deck, her father and uncle were rewarded with the opportunity to bathe under hoses. On deck, there was a latrine that overhung the ocean.

One day, Le saw a young mother climb into the latrine, leaving her little girl, the same age as Le, waiting on the deck. Then, as the small girls watched in horror, the latrine collapsed. The woman disappeared into the water. As the daughter frantically called her mother's name, the spot where the woman fell swiftly vanished into the sea behind them. With thousands of people to save, the American military crew had no time to rescue only one.

The refugee camps in Arkansas, the same ones where Nguyen Dam Phong and his family lived, were equally frightening. Well-to-do in Vietnam, Le saw her neighbors from home fighting over pieces of cabbage and snatching food from anyone whose attention strayed from his bowl. And always in the turmoil seethed the memory of Vietnam, and the Communist government that drove them out.

Bereft of country, wealth and status, the Vietnamese refugees struggling to start again in Houston found one group that offered them a special nourishment. That group, the National United Front to Liberate Vietnam, was the main splinter faction of a far-right umbrella exile organization with ties in Vietnam. Founded in 1981 by ex-Vietnamese military officers in San Jose, California, the Front offered refugees a plan to retake their homeland. The scheme, to raise a guerrilla army in countries bordering Vietnam, sounded far-fetched, but was nonetheless enticing. The Front, with its videos of camouflaged soldiers inching through Asian jungles, assuaged refugees' guilt at leaving and granted an illusion of power in Vietnam's affairs -- and their own.

The appeal of the Front was strongest where the expatriate community was largest -- and Houston, being second only to Orange County, California, in its Vietnamese population, was a major source of Front support. "The Front was started by former high officials, officers of the army," explains one local Vietnamese businessman, who asked not to be named. It is 8 p.m., and he's still at work in his tiny, fluorescent-lit office. Like many Vietnamese immigrants, he says, he commonly works 12 to 18 hours a day. "Before, these officers had power and money," the businessman says. "When they came here they had no skills at all. I think they wanted to do something. It was very hard for these leaders and high officials to come here and do labor. With the Front, they saw a chance for revenge. Not liberation -- revenge."

The Front's dream of retaking Vietnam appealed to thousands of Houston's immigrants. One local community leader who used to donate $100 a month to the Front out of his moderate government salary guesses that some 80 percent of Houston's Vietnamese supported the Front at its peak. All over the country, the Front reportedly drew rallies of up to 5,000 supporters dressed in tan and brown uniforms and passionately singing military anthems. Even when the dream grew doubtful -- after, for example, the Front's guerrilla chief was reported killed -- many clung doggedly to its promises.

"In the early 1980s, the Vietnamese here had lost everything, and the Front was somebody to stand up for them," says a local professional man, who also requested anonymity. "I had a lot of doubts about it. But how could you know? How could you know what was going on in the jungle?" Their faith was measured in dollars: throughout the 1980s, Vietnamese immigrants donated millions to the Front. Little of the money reached Southeast Asia; most of it was invested by Front leaders in concerns ranging from fishing fleets to a worldwide chain of restaurants.

For anyone who looked closely, the Front's credibility was fragile from the start. Nguyen Dam Phong, who had been a prominent journalist in his home country, was one of the first Vietnamese to take that close look. In his tree-shaded Houston home, Nguyen used his kitchen-table newspaper to raise questions about the Front's actions. At its peak, Freedom reached 10,000 people and was the largest Vietnamese-language publication in Houston. In it, Nguyen often teetered near libel in tirades against not only the Front, but also fake refugee aid programs and other groups he deemed dishonest. Although he was a fierce anti-Communist, Nguyen dedicated what became his last issues of Freedom to a series accusing the Front's leaders of fraud.

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