combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2007

The Real Paco
Working with the Montagnards in Cambodia

I met the real Paco in Cambodia in 2005, a Vietnam Marine Corps veteran, who has gone back to work with Montagnard hill tribes in southeast Asia.

Unlike the fictional Paco in Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story, Gary Paco Gregg does not fit the carefully crafted image of the crazed dysfunctional Vietnam veteran that found its way into the dominant media culture of America after the Vietnam War. Heinemann's fictional Paco satisfied the popular culture's deranged view of the Vietnam Veteran returning from the unpopular war, and he won the National Book Award for it in 1987.

In a recent C-Span appearance, Larry Heinemann expressed his views on the Vietnam War, and he still continues to replay a carefully crafted late-1960s anti-war message, borrowed from the Jane Fonda version of the war. His latest book about his return to Vietnam as a Vietnam veteran has all the depth of a tourist who never ventures far from the air-conditioned tour bus.

Gary Paco Gregg returned to Vietnam several years ago to make peace with his fallen Marine comrades and the people of southeast Asia. He volunteers now for a little known NGO, Cambodia Corps Inc, that runs a boarding school for one-hundred and fifty Montagnard (Phnong) children in Mondulkiri province, Cambodia, just across the border from Vietnam.

Says the real Paco, "I came back to Vietnam in 2002 to honor my dead Marine comrades on the spot where they died. I landed in Da Nang and found my way out to the ambush site near Cam Lo. I sang the Marine Corps hymn, I saluted my dead friends where they died, and then I sobbed and cried. It seemed fitting to say goodbye to them where they left this earth."

"I lost many friends in I Corps in 1967 in a place called Ambush Valley[†]. I was a machine-gunner/driver with H & S Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines," says Paco. Cam Lo is between Khe Sanh and Dong Ha on Route 9 in Quang Tri province."

Struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, like many Vietnam combat veterans, Paco has found a new life in Cambodia, and an antidote to PTSD. He now helps the Phnong people, close relatives of the Mnong across the border in Vietnam. The Montagnards are the indigenous peoples of Vietnam and Cambodia, a collection of fifty-four hill tribes who aligned themselves with the United States, and fought side-by-side with the Americans in the war.

"The Marines have a saying," says Paco. "We leave no Marine behind. But isn't that what America did to the Montagnards in the Vietnam War? We went off and abandoned them, leaving them with the false promise that we would come back and take care of them."

Cambodia Corps (CCI) runs a boarding school for Phnong children who have no school to attend in their home villages, and also sponsors fourteen (as of May 2007) of them now with scholarships to attend college in Phnom Penh. The plan is to provide them with an education, so they can return and help their people in the changing world that the future will bring.

I traveled there from Phnom Penh in October of 2005 with Paco, who is the operations coordinator for CCI. It's an eight hour trip and there is no public transportation. For US$20, we purchased a seat in the back of a pick-up truck that was delivering goods and supplies to the remote province capitol of Sen Monorum where the boarding school is located. The last part of the journey was over unpaved and washed out roads, which makes it treacherous during the rainy season.

We arrived in time for the evening meal at the boarding school. Paco greets the students exuberantly; he calls some of them by name and gives big hugs to others. One-hundred and fifty kids were eating at the outdoors communal dining room. The Phnong students were squatting Asian-style on benches constructed for sitting down Caucasian-style. Chickens and dogs roamed under the tables to scarf up dropped rice and bones thrown there after the meal. This practice is the same followed in their villages, where clean up in their stilt-houses is simplified by a woven mesh flooring, that's also cooler and more comfortable than solid floors.

"You can see why I come back here for several months every year to help out," says Paco. "These kids have so little and are so appreciative of our help. I love it here. If CCI weren't here, these students wouldn't have the opportunity to go to school at all."

CCI was founded by another Vietnam veteran, Tommy Daniels, a former Green Beret who served with the Mike Force, and it operates on a tiny budget of only US$80,000 a year. They hire a Khmer school administrator and Khmer language instructor. Unlike many of the large NGOs in Cambodia, CCI rubs elbows with the Montagnards at the rice roots level, and a high percentage of their yearly budget goes directly to the Phnong.

No one knows how many hundreds of thousands of Montagnards fled to the wilds of Cambodia to avoid persecution in Vietnam. Many crossed the border after South Vietnam fell in 1975, as their ancestral homeland in the Central Highlands was invaded and colonized by the Vietnamese from North Vietnam.

Even today, when life becomes unbearable for the Montagnards in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, their only escape is to cross the border into Cambodia. And now, they are no longer safe there, because they are hunted down by the Cambodian police/army and sold back to Vietnam for the bounty placed on their heads. The UNHCR in Phnom Penh has pulled their refugee camp from Sen Monorum so that it is no longer accessible for them.

A number of Vietnam veterans are still concerned about the ongoing repression of our Montagnard comrades in Vietnam and Cambodia, but only one Vietnam veteran has put his money where his mouth is, and that's Tommy Daniels. He ventured out to the eastern frontier of Cambodia, which borders Vietnam, several years ago and started CCI, which provides direct service to the Montagnards.

To help the Montagnards in southeast Asia today, one must go to Cambodia, because the Central Highlands are off limits in Vietnam. There is very limited access to what used to be Montagnard land. The American ambassador can only travel there on carefully guided tours accompanied by communist party minders. And our own State Department has abandoned them, giving sway to the communist double speak that things are okay for the Montagnards in Vietnam.

The traditional Montagnard way of life is quickly disappearing in Cambodia, as it has already done in Vietnam. Logging operations in Ratankiri province, just north of Mondulkiri, have devastated the forests. In Mondulkiri, the site of CCI's boarding school, a Chinese company has just purchased a long-term lease of 200,000 hectares of land to plant pine trees. Some of that land used to belong to the Phnong, and was used for subsistence, not for cash crops.

Even though the Phnong comprise seventy-five percent of the population of 40,000 in Mondulkiri province, the Cambodians control the local government offices. To cope with economic growth and land speculation that threaten the farms and forests on which they depend for their livelihood, the Phnong will have to learn new farming techniques and land law at the same time.

Paco recently helped a Montagnard family that had their land confiscated by a wealthy Khmer from Phnom Penh. The Phnong family went to the provincial authorities in Sen Monorum and protested their land being taken away from them. For this act of defiance they were thrown in jail. Paco hooked them up with the only Phnong lawyer in Cambodia, and after a long process of arbitration in Phnom Penh, they finally got their land back.

CCI believes that education and training are the only hope for the future of the Phnong in Mondulkiri, and for all Montagnards in the other provinces of Cambodia. Here's the reason that a boarding school is so necessary. The Montagnard children can only attend school out in the province up to the sixth grade, but only if there is one within walking distance. As a result, forty percent don't attend school. The only middle school and high school is in the capital of Sen Monorum and there is no transportation to get there on a daily basis.

Students must live in the province capital to attend school. At present, one-hundred and fifty students live at the boarding school and attend classes at the province school.

CCI also provides housing and tuition for fourteen Phnong students to attend college in Phnom Penh. They recently moved into a large house which serves as CCI's dormitory/headquarters in Phnom Penh. The students are training in the following disciplines: medicine, veterinary medicine, engineering, law, and education. They are the first Montagnard students among several hundred thousand to attend college in Cambodia.

I've been there to visit with them and they are the most self-effacing young college men and women that I have ever met. They study every night because they realize the fate of the Montagnard ethnic group in Cambodia may rest on their future leadership.

"One of the college students came to me recently," says Paco, "And told me that his little brother was dying back home in one of the villages. He had been sick for two months and was burning up with fever. We took him by taxi from Sen Monorum, an eight hour ride, to a hospital in Phnom Penh." What Paco is reluctant to say is that he personally paid US$600 out of his pocket to pay for his hospital care, which saved the young man's life.

What are the future needs of CCI? Says president Tommy Daniels, "The Cambodian government wants CCI to come up with funding to support three more boarding schools of one-hundred Montagnard kids in each school. We need to dig a well, procure a generator, and purchase a water tank. Expenses will be US$1000 a month for each school. So for US$12,000 a year, another one-hundred Montagnard kids could go to school and further their education. And for US$36,000 a year, three-hundred students can continue their education."

What brings Vietnam combat veterans like Paco back to southeast Asia? Psychologists might say it's survivor guilt, or an attempt to make sense out of the incredible sacrifice the Vietnam veteran made in that long ago war. For Paco, it satisfies a need to give something back to the Montagnard people that those heartless politicians in Washington abandoned in their hour of need.

Most Asians have forgotten (or have never learned) about the war, since half of all the people living today in southeast Asia were born after the war ended; but it still lies festering under the surface of the American veneer. Just recall the last presidential election where most Vietnam veterans, including the POWs, renounced John Kerry's version of the war.

"It's like a breath of life for me," says Paco. "It's like being reborn again, trying to help these forgotten people that the world has abandoned."

The world hasn't discovered Mondulkiri Province yet, not even the backpackers who traverse southeast Asia, but they will be coming soon. Speculators are buying up land now. The traditional Montagnard way of life is falling by the wayside.

Will the Phnong be ready for modern civilization when it finds its way to Mondulkiri province? CCI is making every effort, despite their small budget, to improve the plight of the Montagnards. You can go to their website at to see the great work that they have done. Any person or group that is interested in sponsoring a Montagnard student for college will find that the cost is from US$1800 to US$2000 a year for room, board, and tuition in Phnom Penh.

"Now you can see why I come back to Cambodia each year and try to give something back by helping out here. I also sponsor one of the college students in Phnom Penh," says Paco. "Our efforts here will prepare the students to stand up for themselves and fight for their rights."

I prefer the version of the Vietnam Veteran portrayed by Gary Paco Gregg, rather than the fictional Paco crafted by Heinemann that helped stain the individual soldier who honorably fought the Vietnam War.

The real Paco is my hero. "I have to go back to these people in the mountains every year," he says. "It's become my mission. My life."

If the Vietnam veteran will not help the forgotten Montagnard allies, who will?

[†] : see Eric Hammel's book Ambush Valley: I Corps, Vietnam, 1967, The Story of a Marine Infantry Battalion's Battle for Survival
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by Richard W. Webster
... who is a retired U.S. Army officer, a retired special education teacher, and now writes freelance. He has written about Montagnards in his capacity of public affairs officer for Counterparts (C/THDNA), a veterans' association of former advisors from the Second Indochina War. He served in Vietnam with both the 1st Infantry Division and with Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS MAT III-87), about which experiences he is writing a book.

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