GREENSBORO, N.C. — The remnants of a tribe of Montagnard mountain warriors who risked their lives to protect American Green Berets in Vietnam arrived Tuesday to resettle among the GIs they befriended.
A plane carrying 201 Montagnards--survivors of thousands of mountain tribesmen who aided American troops 20 years ago--was greeted by nearly 200 Americans, including many Green Berets.
"As far as I'm concerned, these people are POWs just returning from the war," said former Green Beret John Amundson, now of Greensboro. "When the U.S. forces left, these people were stuck in the middle--they weren't Vietnamese, and they weren't Cambodians.
Served as Teachers
"They taught us how to make it in the jungle, to travel light and eat what's out there," Amundson said. "They knew more about the territory than our supposed leaders.
"We were out on a mission once with about 200 Montagnards, when they said, 'Let's take a break.' But our officers wouldn't listen to them," Amundson said.
"As it turned out, we were on the wrong side of the border--we weren't supposed to be in Cambodia," he said. "The officers couldn't get them to move, and it was a good thing because there was a North Vietnamese army up ahead."
Also on hand to greet the Montagnards was Jim Morris, whose book "War Story" told of a tribal people so loyal they sacrificed their own lives to protect the Americans.
"If we'd been ambushed, they'd pass me to get at the ambush, to save my life," Morris said in a telephone interview. "A Montagnard and an American patrol would take fire and the Montagnards would cluster around to shield the Americans with their bodies. That was not an uncommon experience."
Sent to Labor Camps
But, at war's end, the Americans left and the Montagnard leaders were sent to forced labor camps, where many died. Those who eluded capture believed the GIs would return, and they continued to fight the communists.
But, in 1980, they gave up their battle, and about 4,000 survivors began the long, dangerous trip across Cambodia to the refugee camps of Thailand.
Only 220 made it to Thailand. Of those, 201 stayed together in the camps and were relocated last April to the Philippines en route to relocation in the United States. The group was flown to Los Angeles Monday.
Despite some fluency in English, the Montagnards resettling in Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte under the auspices of the Lutheran Family Services relief organization are not expected to have an easy adjustment to U.S. society.
'Going to Be Traumatic'
"It's going to be traumatic," said Dr. James Turpin, the founder of Project Concern. "We're dealing with a very primitive, semi-nomadic tribal group."
When U.S. soldiers first arrived in Vietnam's central Highlands in the 1960s to recruit and train a fighting force, they found the Montagnards wearing loincloths, using crossbows and living in grass shacks with dirt floors.
Turpin said the survivors have suffered severe losses in the aftermath of the war.
"It's going to be very difficult emotionally--they've lost people. They'll miss very deeply their homes and the people they left," Turpin said. "They'll need a lot of care and guidance."