combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2003

Dear Mother and Father
Prayers from the Central Highlands

Mail Call

The first of all, thanks our Lord for taking care all of us from everything ... dear Mother and Father, how are you? We are all fine here these days.

Since 1994, we've received hundreds of letters postmarked GiaLai Province, Vietnam, and almost every one begins this way. Each letter is originally composed in the writer's tribal language. A villager, who learned English from the Americans during the 1960's, translates the letter before it is mailed to us. Our letter-writers are Bahnar and live in remote areas where there is no electricity or running water. Their conduit to the outside world is a P.O. Box at a small post office near their village.

nationalistic image on SRV postage

Although most of these people are literate, they didn't write letters before 1994. Who was there to write to? That changed when I returned to the Central Highlands of Vietnam after a 26-year absence. My mission was to find the children I had met in 1968 and renew our special friendship. Since my first visit, they have become prolific in the art of correspondence.

My wife and I have returned to Vietnam a number of times since I found my special family. Each visit strengthens the bonds, but it is through their letters that we have learned about their lives and their faith, their dreams and their troubles. There are over 130 individuals in this Bahnar family of ours, and the responsibility is great. We do our best to help them, but often learn what we should and should not do through trial and error.

There are times when it is strange to write and receive letters from these families. The differences between their sustenance-farming lifestyle and our suburban American lives couldn't be any more pronounced. It's so surreal that it often feels as though the letters could arrive from the other side of the moon ... but they must feel the same way about us.

What's Bahnar life like? you might ask. In an attempt to answer the question, we offer you some excerpts from their letters. We've saved every one. Some might make you twist in your chair just a bit. I beg your indulgence with the rustic translations ... I thought you should see them just as we do.


Although I had carried the special memory of my children through the years, I was amazed that they had remembered me. The children were very young when I left in 1968. Now, these many years later, they asked questions about other MP friends and could still sing some of the songs we had taught them. In retrospect, teaching them Bang, Bang Lulu was probably not the best idea ....

Now I ask you about our friends. Are they in good health? I think about them all the time. I think about those days and miss you all.
You asked me if I still remember you when you were here. Of course I never forgot you.
I remember at past time, each morning at 8 o'clock on the 19 road waiting for you. When you come you take all of us on your jeep and then go to Ayun bridge. Sometime you take me go with you to your place and sleep there on bed at night time. I fall down from the bed 2-3 time, you put me up to the bed, I still remember.
When dad left this country to United State, the house that dad had made was taken away from us. Someone wanted to kill mom when you left, because mom had owed a lot of peoples things.
Kun and Den

Coming to America?

It didn't take long for our families to ask if they could come to America. It was an agonizing time as we considered the pro's and con's. Would we be moving them from the frying pan into the fire? Would they be happier in the world they knew versus one that was so different, it would be generations before their families assimilated? Would we be helping them trade one type of poverty for another? In the end, we decided we had to at least try. In the end, we were told no.

Your children work to get food, but it's very difficult, and we have no land to make a field. We want to go to America to live with you, but I am very poor and have no money to make application. What do you think, is it possible?
Would you be able to hire us?
We have only 1 acre on top of a mountain, how can we live on that?
I wish you can take our family to your country. I'm sure they [Vietnamese] do not like us because we have father and mother, American people.
I sure you want to bring all of three of us to the America. Father, how about just bring my family only, is that all right?

Rice Bowl

There are some truths, no matter where you live, that are universal. The plight of a farmer is one of those truths. As they toil through floods, droughts, temperatures, and insects, it often seems as though nature conspires against them. The Bahnar are farmers that live and, literally, die by their annual rice crop. There are no options, contingencies or fall back positions. The simple truth is that the crop must be enough to feed everyone until the next harvest. If it isn't, they will lose one or more members of their family.

If harsh realities weren't enough, many of our families are forced to farm mountainsides instead of the fertile paddy land in the valleys. Due to the tremendous influx of Vietnamese relocated into the Highlands after 1975, the Bahnar have been displaced to less productive farmland. Hillsides can only yield one crop per year, while paddies yield two.

When considering these elements, it can't be a surprise that there are significant food shortages every year. As we look for ways to improve their standard of living, we often divert monies from our long-term projects and goals just to keep our families fed. Helping with food is always our number one priority.

This year is very bad raining, destroyed all our bridge and our rice and rice fields. All our rice we can't get in time, rain so much our rice is rotten all.
Chanh and Yat
If we do not have your help, we all die of starvation.
Since Kenh died I am sad all the time. I work to provide food for your grandchildren, it doesn't seem like we will be able to live.
My self sometime no eat anything for few days, one piece of manioc we're break it apart to divide each other.
Phiet and Hoai
Well this year is not very good for rice, because not much rain.

Malaria and Leprosy

I used to believe one of the few benefits of Communism was free medical care. I guess that must be Socialism as neither medicine nor hospital care is free in Vietnam. There is only one primitive clinic in the province, which is 60 kilometers from the village. It's too far away and inadequate for the region's needs. As a result, malaria is widespread and serious injuries go unattended. We have even lost a family member to leprosy. Each time we visit we bring as much medicine as we can carry. Sadly, it's never enough and we can't send money to replenish the supplies. The medicines just aren't available.

In March Yat was got sick, but I gave her some pills from you gave us. Now she is fine. I was sick in April, cough and headache more than a week. Now I think my malaria was over.
Chanh and Yat
In Christmas time we had a big sorrow. My child was ill, one month in hospital, but she is all right now, we borrowed money from some one.
Nek and Pruk
Many people are sick, like malaria and fever, almost everyone in the village got this disease.
Bler was sick about her stomach. Now she just feed pigs at home. This is her only job she can do.
Last month Yui he fell down into hot water and burn his back. We must go hospital for a few days for him.
Tut and Kanh
I'm go to my rice field to cut grass, I'm cutting my toes all most cut out my toes, too deep. I'm going to hospital about one week.
My wife she can't come because she is leprosy, no foot and hand. So then she ask your picture, she like to meet you on the picture.
wedding portrait
August 2002 wedding
portrait of Nup and Hmai.
Nup is the son of Prot,
who died in 1995.


Each year, there are several weddings as our grandchildren come of age. When the eldest married a few years ago, we sent money for a Reception and it's a tradition we've continued. On their wedding day the bride and groom, the families and guests are no different in these little villages than wedding parties in the United States. Sadly, none of these happy occasions have coincided with our visits, and we live vicariously through the pictures we receive.

I got a girl friend now, we live different village. This is her name, Hmai. Her parents still alive.
My daughter Doch, she just 16 years old but she wants to get married. I'm very sad about that because she still growing up.
We wish you were there when we are eating and drinking and happy day. We are very happy for you have helped us.
Doch and Yik
Nek husband his name is Pruk. His also orphan (father past), same as Nek.
I wish you be here when the day comes and you stand with us, see you like my father.


When a newborn arrives, it's a wonderful day! The Vietnamese are limited to two children, but that rule doesn't apply to the ethnic minorities. Some of our Bahnar families have as many as eight children. When one of these mothers give birth, she does it the old fashioned way. There are no doctors, no hospital rooms, and no painkillers.

We two here now have a baby already; it is a boy, his name is Yuin. He was born on August 14, 1997.
Tut and Kanh
Koch have a boy at 8 am, October 22, 1998. His name call Nai Thun. Father, you said Koch will have a boy, that is right, you are a prophet.
Yaih and Koch
We have newborn, her name is Soi, her mother well working in homework.
Nek and Pruk
Thank our Lord give me in our family having new baby girl, her name is Chep, but I can't take picture yet.
We had a new child but I'm sorry that I didn't tell you he was born yet. Yuon was born in 21 July 2001.
Tut and Kanh
Now I telling you, your granddaughter Ker, she just gave birth to a boy. His name Yuen, and I'm sending you a picture of Yuen here.
We already have a child named Thes. This name we like close to your name.
Doch and Yik


We try to visit the Central Highlands every two years, but there have been occasions when we weren't granted visas. The Vietnamese government has banned us intermittently since 1996, and has never been forthcoming with an explanation as to why. While access to a telephone has not been allowed since the Montagnard unrest in 2001, receiving letters and pictures has not been a problem. These letters are our lifelines.

We just received your letter. That made me and all of your grand children very happy because you still loves us.
Now I'm very happy, that last week ago I talked to you in telephone, and I heard your voice. I was full of joy.
We are all want to asking your picture. After you leave us, all of us want to look at your picture.
Mot and Ken
We don't know where is you live and where is your country, on which side of the world.
Chanh and Yat
I'm very sorry, because I did not write you before. I'm not very smart man, and I don't have time.
I miss you so much, I wish you not gone. I talking, you not hearing. I crying, you do no know. I run to you but not reach you.
Her and Bler
Every time I look at your picture, it always break my heart, and make me going to cry. Miss you much, because we are live far away from you.
Tut and Kanh
Montagnard farmers with walk-behind
walk-behind tractor modernizes
farming techniques for
Bahnar Montagnards


It's back-breaking work using a hoe to till fields, and only the luckiest families have an ox to help. That's why my wife decided to use her annual bonus in 2001 to buy two walking tractors. When they run, they work great! But, as with anything mechanical, breakdowns happen. We help them keep the tractors running, but are reevaluating our priorities. Buying fertile paddy land has moved to the top of our list. It's a tragic fact that we actually help the Bahnar people buy back their ancestral lands, and that this is accomplished within a culture operating without the use of money. Well, so much for the Communist ideal ....

Some one have rice field for sale, I wanted it. If you could help me, but if you couldn't no matter. It's up to God could help you.
Before, our people working rice field by hand, now we are see they use by tractor. O! very fast if our Lord God help you father to help us a tractor, so happies.
I think the tractor is very useful, but not every day. My thought now, for often used, sell the box of the trailer and buy a rice mill.
We short of food every year because I have no paddy land. We have some people, rice paddy for sale.
Our family so sad because our ox die, it eat a poison of manioc.
I wish you can help me, own good rice paddy, grow a lot of rice, so a lot of our Bahnar starve people, I can help them.
Our tractor fixed. Now we have bought the new tire and bought a new gasoline tank and some new part in the engine. Now the engine is easy to start and running good.
Yaih and Koch


The traditional Bahnar home is a one-room bamboo building and sits on stilts. With the growing Vietnamese influence, houses are becoming more modern. Wooden structures, built on the ground with cement foundations, are now common. Occasionally modern brick homes are being built, complete with tile roofs and kitchens. New families are beginning as the grandchildren marry and older homes are deteriorating due to the rains and heat. We try to help them keep up.

Now we are very difficult life. My mother's house is leaky and drip, wetting all the room. We would like to ask you to help.
Ling and Soa
Now we want to live independent, so we need to built a house.
Aroch and Kan
My old roof been tearing, I want to get new roof.
Our house do not done, because money you help is gone. No floor yet, needs more cement for floor.
Nek and Pruk
My tin roof is very old, and they have a lot of holes when rains they leaks many places, make us can't go to sleep.


One of the first requests we received in 1994 was for a motorbike (Honda). Since the villages are remote, having a motorbike meant freedom and the ability to take a loved one to the hospital in an emergency. We've purchased a number of Hondas since 1994 but, between accidents and breakdowns, they don't always last. When a larger need appears, it's not unusual to see a Honda traded or sold. We have a little more luck with bicycles.

Our Honda is corrupted because so many people use.
Your grandson, they asked me to buy a bicycle for them. I'm a woman, I don't know how to get money.
We are so happiness you help Hyuh for his new bicycle.
You ask what our the most needs, everything daily we life we needs Honda to us transportation for our life.
I want to have my good transportation for God evangelistic to another far village, to become a Christian. Sometime I go with my bicycle, sometime I'm walking.


Most of our children have received some formal education; however, not many have made it very far through the school system. Often, secondary schools are too far from home and working in the rice fields must always take precedence.

While lifestyle and logistics are obstacles to higher education, there is yet another barrier for our children. That barrier is the spoken word. Similar to our American Indians, the tribal peoples of Vietnam each have their own distinct and separate language or dialect. With Vietnamese as the official language, Bahnar students are forced to become bilingual to even attend school, and trilingual if they are to succeed in the higher grades. Isn't it ironic that all the best commercial jobs and all government jobs in Vietnam require that the employee be fluent in English?

We have one child who is completing high school this year. Siu Yen has been an outstanding student and has met all of her challenges, all obstacles and prejudices with dignity and intelligence. Still, we have no assurances, nor substantial belief, that she won't be relegated to farming hillsides, and never given the opportunity to apply her education. The playing field is not level.

I'm always sad because Hyuh ask me every month for clothes, books and money for school. We have asked for him if he can go to Plei-Ku school, but they said no because we are believer. So now he just go to Mang Yang school, study there and go home.
I'm in class 6 this year. I study in Vietnamese school. There is far away, about 13 kilometer from here to that place. I don't have bicycle yet.
I want to buy books, pen, clothes to school. Can father and mother help me? This year I'm learning in class 10.
Siu Yen
Hyuh still go to school. The bicycle, helped from you, already broken. At school time, he left his bike outside, bad boys hidden his bike.

Trouble in the Jungle

Crime isn't common in a Bahnar village, but it does happen. One family member disappeared during the 1980's, under mysterious circumstances, and is presumed dead. Livestock has been stolen, and some of our children have been threatened because of their connection to us.

Also, similar to communities anywhere, larger events take place over which there is little personal control. In February of 2001, thousands of Montagnards finally staged protests over land rights and religious persecution. The pressure had been building for a long time. Since that period of unrest, the militaristic government has clamped down hard. The area has been closed to foreigners, police have made innumerable arrests, some people have disappeared, and those who feared for their lives have tried to escape by fleeing to neighboring Cambodia.

The United Nations was so concerned by the actions of the Vietnamese government that they eventually took control of the growing refugee camps in Cambodia. After much political protest over compulsory repatriation, these Montagnards have begun the long road to resettlement in the United States as political refugees. This intervention was rigorously opposed by the officials in Hanoi.

While protests occurred in the same province where our families live, they were not actively involved. Although phone calls to us have not been allowed since the unrest, letters continue to arrive on a regular basis. Fearing the consequences of too much insider news, they carefully avoid this subject in their correspondence. You won't see any mention of repression in these excerpts, but that doesn't mean their lives are not affected. And if censorship, murder, and mayhem weren't enough, accidents also happen.

At the day, on the morning, my brother Djanh his taking money from my aunt to buy a cow for her, but at moment that night someone take him away from our house and killed.
This year I have met 2 time of sorrow. I have been in the hospital, the money for me to buy axle for tractor, and I used them for medicine. And now, my son hit 3 Vietnamese boy, one boy the arm was broken, another one splited the bone of the nose.
Myself this year God has tested me. Malaria and Honda accident, and now the third time the evil people has stolen 5 cows of mine. My heart was hot like fire, but you gave me bath, make me cool in my heart.


Practicing Christianity for the Bahnar hasn't been easy under Communist rule. While Catholicism is perceived as a French influence and allowed to thrive, most of our families are evangelical Protestants, which is perceived as an American influence and strictly controlled. Due to the uprising in February of 2001, local authorities have allowed some Protestants to practice their faith more openly. Christmas celebrations were allowed in the village for the first time last December.

I don't know the reason why when Christmas comes, I wear a dismal face from sadness. Perhaps, in the past I was young and overflow with hope.
Siu Cham
No Christmas here, please pray for us. We wanted to have a merry Christmas like you.
Djuk and Byek
We can't have happy Christmas day yet, the government do not allow, so sad.
Yot, Kan, Aroch, and Ker
We will sing a Christmas song in our church this year. We will so happy to sing a Christmas song together, will help our family.
We are very happy Christmas year is free for our worship at night time, December 24, 2002, and all day 25th.

When Are You Coming Back?

We try not to raise expectations about our next visit as money and visas are never a sure thing. So, when the stars finally line up and our visit is imminent, it's wonderful to hear the excitement in their letters. During our brief time together, we try desperately not to consider the great sadness that will accompany our eventual good-bye.

I do not forget that you told us next time you visit, you going to bring our young brother and young sister with you.
We are thank you saying you will come back to visit us gain. We know this is your writing, but is the same your word speaking to us, so then our heart feeling so deep.
Bam and Keh
We thought in year 2002, but now comes, but you still not able to come visit us yet. We were all sad about that.
Mot and Ken
I can't eat any more because I know the time to separating is coming, you will leave us, you already hanging towel on your neck. I'm sure mom and dad will leave us, no more time, my feeling come up from my heart. I'm crying on you.
snake image on SRV postage stamp

Don't Know Whether to Laugh or Cry

Let's just say that each letter has the potential to bring giggles or tears. Seldom does a letter simply express a casual greeting.

I beg you help me find husband in America please.
Siu Khang
So then I have my false tooth made. 1 tooth cost 100,000 dong. I lost 12 tooths. I'm going to dig a well soon, this cost much money, but we need them.
I just translate what they say to you. They been good each other or not, I really don't know. Good man they don't like all this, greed, jealous, angry, tell lies against each other.
If you can I want a camera because mine's was broken, get me a cassette recorder too father.
He put organ on the table after his playing for church worship. We are do not sure this organ fall from table to the ground, is break, no more use.
Bler and Her

Nine-One-One 2001

I lost my father, William C. Little, unexpectedly on September 8th 2001. I found myself out of town, attending his funeral, when the terrorist attacks of September 11th occurred. As the world struggled to comprehend the violence, I felt lost. My grief for one event doubled by the other.

You had a sad news. A person passed away. Now we two your grandchild sad too. We wish we could come and visit you. We know you had a deep sad but we don't know what to do for you.
Yik and Doch
We heard something happened to your country. We so worried about you since September until now.
Mot and Ken
We know that our grandfather died on September 8th, 2001, and you also told us something happened to your country. We also saw that in our Tely too. We saw that big plane hit big building, then broke the house down. It was strange to hear that grandfather died because we have seen his picture. He was not too old. When I looked at his picture, and I was crying to his picture, when I knew that I was sick for you.
Chanh and Yat


It was sad enough, when I found them in 1994, to learn of those who were loit [dead]. Sadder still to look around the village and meet their widows and children. I'm not certain, at that moment in time, I even considered that I would continue to lose them. Our son Prot passed away in 1995 and Kenh in 1997. Each time we received a phone call, and each time we were over 10,000 miles away ... powerless to help, to console, or to change what had happened.

In December 2002 at Christmas time, we had bad sad news, Bler's brother God has taken his soul back. We were sad because this happened the same day of Christmas.
My wife died September 2000. Our Lord take her away from us. I'm so deep remember her.
This is very sad news. My father he died at 3 o'clock in the morning August 15, 1997. He died while he was sleeping.
At 3 am August 15 1997 morning his die. His wife a waking him because she hearing the deep breathe. She turn his face and she crying, I hearing she crying. I come and his stop breathing. I did not know he will die, because his very handsome.
maternal image on SRV postage stamp


There are days when it's easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of need that is delivered to our mailbox. The depth of their gratitude is so profound that we don't, we can't, give in to despair. We'll do what we can, once again, when we return in April of 2003.

I want to thank you, you been helping me too much, but I haved nothing to help you.
So I thank our Lord God every day, because Thee give us American father, more than my own parent.
Bler and Her
We used to buy medicine for sickness, and rice to eat, clothes to wear. Our working and eating are better now, as before. We know they comes from you.
Mot and Ken
Great big thank to you and thank with all of my heart. I know you father and mother loves us great and deep and wide.
Djuk and Byek
Because we have you, you support us, so we can live and I think and remember when you visit us, we didn't have anything to give you, to remember us.
I am very grateful to you, and to all of your friends whom donate money. I do not know their names but when I seeing the money it seems I knew them all. I am very happy, and I always thank to our Lord God watch over us.
Aroch and Kan

by Michael C. Little with Marion G. Little
... who are project directors of Operation Rice Lift for the Pleiku MP Association. Mike is a sales manager with The Minute Maid Company; and is the author of several Montagnard-related articles. Marion is the Information Resources director for H.P. Hood, a national dairy; and is co-author of Two Women ... One Duck, a travelogue of her first visit to Vietnam.