Finding peace after years of war

Chou and Nao Yang


Chou and Nao were Lao refugees whose relocation to the United States was sponsored by Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Atkinson. They arrived on a cold day in March 1976 and church members provided them with warm clothes, a job for Chou, and a place to live.

“Most Americans don’t know about the secret war in Laos,” Chou said. “They know only about the Vietnam war; they don’t know the secret war. The American government, the CIA, came over and they were asking Laotian government to help the U.S. The government said no, but General Pao said the Hmong people would help.”

Chou served in the CIA-supported army led by Hmong general Vang Pao for 15 years, from 1960 until 1975, rising to the rank of captain. The U.S. government’s overarching goal was to drive communist forces from southeast Asia, and Chou helped protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vital supply line that ran through Laos between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. 

The U.S. ultimately failed in its effort; Saigon fell at the end of April 1975 and soon afterward communist soldiers captured General Pao’s headquarters, winning the war in Laos as well.

The war was over, Chou’s side had lost, and he feared for his safety. “The communists took over on May 15,” he said. “People said, ‘Whoever served the U.S. government, you have to find a way to go. They’re going to arrest you; they’re going to take you away.’” He and Nao and their four children fled to Thailand by bus, taxi, and finally a boat across the Mekong River. They were housed at the Nam Phong Military Camp and later at Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. 

In March of 1976, after nearly a year of traveling, living in refugee camps, and applying for amnesty, the family was abruptly presented with a opportunity. “They came with three buses to pick up the people,” he said. “They had a microphone and they were yelling loud, ‘Who’s gonna go to the U.S.? If you’re ready, don’t take anything, just come out. Go to the parking lot and go to the U.S.!’”

After the family’s arrival in Fort Atkinson, Chou had a week to rest before starting a job at Nasco. He and Nao would eventually have nine children and he became a citizen in 1982. He worked at the Purina plant in Jefferson until his retirement, and later he and Nao bought nine acres of land outside town and built a home there. Now they’re frequent vendors at the Fort Atkinson Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, selling a variety of herbs and vegetables from their large garden.

“I’m very happy to be here,” Chou said. “Quiet, peace, and freedom.”

This story is part of "A Place to Call Home," a special exhibition by writer and photographer Lori Compas at the Hoard Historical Museum in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.