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HOW IT ALL STARTED
by John Sweet
Every once in a while I would stumble across the old shoe box full of pictures while searching in the bedroom closet for something. My quest would then become of secondary importance, and I would spend a few minutes while sitting on the bed, pondering over the dozen pictures I always left on top. Pictures of NKP, Nakhon Phanom - or "Naked Fanny" as we all called it, and of the orphanage at THARE. Pictures taken just a couple days before Christmas in 1969, and the years would pass away as the flood of memories returned. Another Buck Sergeant named Ted deserves the most credit, for he convinced me to accompany him to the orphanage at THARE almost fifty miles away from NKP near Sakon Nakhon.
To this day I have no idea how Ted first met Father Khai, nor how he managed to pull off teaching English to the children there during his R & R time, instead of being required to go to Bangkok, but he did! Father Khai picked us up for the journey and returned us after dark that night, speeding in a cloud of dust over the twisting rut filled red dirt road through the jungle. We used to say "If you didn't believe in God before you got in Father Khai's car, you sure did by the time you got out." My one day visit to the orphanage was enough to convince me that Ted was right, the kids needed all the help they could get. So together we started a campaign to raise money.
The project began in October and took off like wildfire. The men stationed at NKP gave generously and gathered assistance from everywhere. By the time a week before Christmas rolled around there was $5,000 in cash, as well as everything from baseball equipment to fingernail clippers. Somehow, don't ask me how, there were over a dozen large containers each four feet square filled with personnel items for the children. Combs, shampoo, scissors, sewing kits, handkerchiefs, soap, socks and clothes. I was amazed because they were all brand new and individually packaged. It certainly was going to be a great Christmas for the kids!
The units were competing amongst themselves in a friendly way to outdo each other. The most astonishing gift was the first one delivered. A huge pile of snow from Colorado with a Christmas Tree stuck on top. The kids went wild because they had never seen snow before. But I have to admit, when Santa showed up in the 21st SOS Jolly Green Giant, they had tied for first place. Father Khai had not been idle either.
The Bishop had come up from Bangkok for the celebration, which was an eleven hour drive each way. Somehow Father Khai had "found" a case of cold American beer and provided a feast on the verandah for Ted, several of the officers and myself. The older girls performed Thai dancing as entertainment while the other 1200 orphans watched, lined up behind them facing us. Passing out those gifts to the children is the fondest memory of Christmas I have. As they passed down the row of boxes holding out their newly acquired shopping bags (with handles) I wondered who had connections with the bag manufacturer.
The faces of the children portrayed the true meaning of Christmas in ways I am not capable of putting into words. I always remember that day filled with joy in celebration of love and peace. I always wondered what happened to Father Khai and the orphanage at THARE.
One day while using my computer last February I decided to test the claim of a new Search Engine on the Web. Entering the words "Nakhon Phanom" I was sure nothing would be found and I would be eligible to win a prize in their contest. I was wrong.
I found the wonderful Web Site of the Air Commando Association, submitted my application and joined. Funny how your plans change isn't it? I was headed to China by invitation of a Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party. A guide and translator, along with transportation was to be provided with permission to travel anywhere I wanted.
The offer had been made over dinner a year earlier. My wife, Nancy and I had assisted a delegation that had come to America to finalize negations with the company I work for. They would never have the opportunity to be in America again and were staying in a motel alone for two weekends, so we escorted them around Boston and Southern New Hampshire.
I never thought they were serious when we were told "You are welcome to come to China" until I received a phone call from Sashi concerning the details a month later. So I got to thinking maybe we can go to Bangkok if were going to enter China from Hong Kong.
Then I discovered that Thai Airways is now flying up to NKP several times a week. When that worked out I knew I was going up to have a look around. Then in late June I left a posting on the United Stated Air Force 50th Anniversary Web Site - PACAF as well as another on the Vietnam Vets Message Board, about my return trip to Nakhon Phanom.
A week or so later I received e-mail from Suttida and David Brown. Suttida is from NKP and now teaches Thai at Princeton University and her sister is a school teacher in NKP. Suttida kindly offered to assist me in any way, and offered to have her sister meet us at the airport. I then asked her if the orphanage at THARE was still there, and if they could locate Father Khai.
I received e-mail back that Suttida would ask her sister to try to locate him and that the orphanage was still there. That same night I dreamed of returning to NKP, and maybe finding Father Khai, who was my only Thai friend I could remember by name. I woke up when I thought "If I find him what would I say, remember when we helped you?"
The very next day I began raising money for the orphanage at THARE, which was to be donated in memory of the men from NKP who never returned home. That same night I received e-mail from Dick Anderson, a former member of the 23rd TASS at NKP who responded to my posting on the Vietnam Vets Message Board. Dick had located several other members of the 23rd TASS over the years, and held a reunion with them at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. a couple of weeks before. He stated that it seemed like a good project for the 23rd TASS guys and asked for my address.
The next thing I knew, I had checks in the mail from five men I had never met, including Roger Herrick, the brother of Captain James W. Herrick Jr. of the 602nd, who became MIA in October 1969 while I was at NKP. Two weeks after I had raised $1,000 and Suttida's sister had found Father Khai and Suttida e-mailed me his fax number.
So I faxed off my old pictures of him and I from 28 years ago and received a very warm response which was signed "Your Old Friend in Thailand, Lawrence Khai" Seems he was now archbishop of Thailand.
Father Khai picked us up at the airport at Sakon Nakhon and drove us to his residence where breakfast awaited us. We then toured St. Joseph's School which is adjacent. The school today is very modern including a room filled with computers. All grade levels are taught English and computer usage. The children wear red and white uniforms and are extremely well behaved. The school also has a recent addition of a large gymnasium which has not been enclosed on the sides.
The orphanage at THARE stands across the street from the school. The old buildings I remembered in 1969 have been replaced, and a brand new church has also been built. One of the Sisters who works at the orphanage was one of the children present when Santa arrived in 1969. Father Khai informed me former students still speak fondly in remembrance of the American GI's visit to this day.
Most of the orphans who attend St. Joseph's School no longer reside at the orphanage, but rather live with families in the local communities. A family of their own has proven to be far more beneficial to the children. However, some still live at the orphanage as not enough families have been located. As the children were all in classes, we headed out to procure lodging at The Imperial Hotel in downtown Sakon Nakon where we had lunch and sang Karokie with some Thai soldiers. Then in our rented air conditioned van, (1300 Baht - $42.00 for 8 hours) we headed out for NKP.
The road was straight and paved for the whole fifty miles, as we passed rice fields and water buffalo as well as an occasional hamlet built in modern western style and technique. There was total absence of jungle. Not a single remnant of the old rainforest endures, nor was there any rain during one week in Thailand. Twenty four inches of rain used to be normal for August, but now no rainforest, no rain.
Father Khai escorted us and had made the arranged for the van. After twenty-eight years the little Thai I remembered made for limited conversations. The number of Thai people who spoke excellent English was amazing, and I wished I had kept up. But without modern technology I reminded myself, without computers and the internet I would have never found use of it.
When we arrived at the left hand turn off to the entrance of Nakhon Phanom I felt as though I was going home in some respects. Like returning to a house where my Grandparents had lived after they had passed on and no longer owned in the family. There were no guards at the front gate, which in itself had been removed. The flag pole and restaurant were not in evidence and the road was empty on either side, with no evidence of what had been before apparent.
Suddenly one building loomed ahead on the left which has been refurbished into the NKP Airport Terminal and as we approached the road angled toward it and the van dropped onto the ol'e famous PSP runway at NKP. We stopped the van right there and got out. I stood there for several minutes looking in all directions, searching for clues to physically tie in the memories whirling through my mind.
So many years had passed and yet those vivid remembrances seemed far more real than what I beheld within my sight. The Brotherhood is certainly still present on the PSP at NKP. There is an erieness about the experience of returning physically more to the past than visiting in the present. Many places in the world are affiliated with great historical events, and I have seen my share, but none can compare to standing on the floating runway at NKP for anyone who was stationed there.
The old tower is still intact, standing for a while longer beside the runway. Thai Airways is in the process of building a new runway parallel to the PSP and I doubt they intend to use the old gal in their plans. A couple of the old steel hangers belonging to the Cricket Birddogs, and some concrete maintenance sheds remain. All of the barracks and other buildings have been taken down, with only traces of their former identity known if you remember where they were first.
The chow hall, the mailroom, the chapel and the movie theater each of these have visible remains on the ground when viewed by standing on the hill which overlooked them past the barracks adjacent to the main base road and flight line. Anybody remember the swimming pool next to these across the street from the HQ for the 56th Special Operations Wing, the TUOC (Tactical Operations Center) and the static display of the A1-E called "The Proud American"?
Well, standing on that hill overlooking the main base, those karst in Laos are still the same on a clear day and the Mekong still winds its way down past Nakhon Phanom. I have to admit I enjoyed the old outdoor movie theater because nothing beat sitting in the pouring rain to watch Romeo and Juliet. Those of you who saw it know what I mean. The ol "Censored US Armed Forces" sure had the last laugh didn't they? That must have been the largest display of projectile beer cans in the history of AF Movies guys....we set a record!
Then we headed "downtown" into Nakhon Phanom. There is a lot less going on there than when the American GI's were present. However, next to the old clock tower Montie's Ice Cream Parlor is still there on the banks of the Mekong.
We then headed back to THARE for the memorial presentation. All of the children gathered around and Father Khai translated: IN MEMORY OF OUR BELOVED BROTHERS. We make this donation in a sincere desire to again assist the children of this school Many years have passed since 1969, when Father Khai and I worked on the Christmas celebration together. A celebration which is vivid even now as my fondest Christmas. A celebration of sharing and love which has never been forgotten by the children who were here, even after almost 28 years former students still remark upon that time with fondness.
Today a new generation of students are here, and the Americans serving in the 56th Special Operations Wing at Nakhon Phanom have long since departed home. Some of those who assisted and contributed greatly to the success of that celebration in 1969 never returned home. Our beloved brothers perished during the war, or yet remain Missing in Action. In their memory we make this donation to renew their commitment of love and fellowship, and they shall not be forgotten.
This donation has been raised by contributions of the men who were soldiers in the 56th Special Operations Wing at Nakhon Phanom, and from the families of those whose fate is still unknown.Four large bags of perennial American Wildflower Seeds I snuck in were distributed and planted by the children on the field where the 21st SOS Jolly Green Giant delivered Santa. Now the children at THARE Orphanage today remember the American GI's stationed at NKP who never returned home, when they pass the field of flowers. The old song of the 60's asks "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and now you know where some of them stand for The Brotherhood.
The next morning, we boarded our plane at Sakon Nakhon and bid farewell to archbishop Khai who came down to see us off with his blessing, and flew into Nakhon Phanom. The return flight to Bangkok always goes there first. What a feeling to touch down on the old runway! The plane refuels then returns to Bangkok. So I used the time to get off and meet the chief of the airport security, who speaks English well and spent ten years after the war in Hanoi at their airport.
Just before boarding the plane, standing on the PSP, I really wanted to share the experience with the other men who had assisted the orphanage and Father Khai. So I noticed the white quartz stones about the size of a quarter which are the bed for the PSP and picked up five of them. They were covered with grease, oil and exhaust. Perfect!
Now I knew how to make the Memorial Presentation in Memory of the Men from NKP a yearly event so they shall not be forgotten. The orphanage at THARE has no sponsors and remembering The Brotherhood is best served by doing what they did, by helping others. So now all those who were stationed at NKP can have a piece of it, pay tribute in remembrance of the members of their fallen and missing Brotherhood, while at the same time assisting the orphanage at THARE and archbishop Khai's lifelong mission.
|Father Khai in front of the orphanage, 69||PSP at NKP, 97|
|The Tower at NKP, 97||Father Khai with THARE Kids, 97|
|PSP at NKP||THARE Kids|
|THARE Kids, 69||Picking the Stones from NKP, 97|
|More of the THARE Kids||Still more of the THARE Kids|
|Orphanage at THARE||Father Khai, 69|
|The Gray Ghost w/THARE Kids, 69||Thanks VFW, 97|
**Operation Crutch - Our assistance donations paying off. Click here to view.
Click here for The latest message from Father Khai
Our Donations Hard at work! (click for larger picture)
Top left - Delivering rice to
the handicapped school
The following Pictures are from May 99, Here the kids and Teachers are receiving their walkers and wheelchairs. Once again we see the benefits of our Assistance fund in action.
Ages of the children assisted by THARE:
|4 - 6 years old -||99|
|7 - 8 years old -||90|
|9 -10 years old -||84|
|11 -14 years old -||67|
Report by Tommy Thompson, received 1/18/2000
Following is our report of the recent joint VFW & TLC Brotherhood missions conducted during December and January. This was by far the largest number of projects ever undertaken here in Northeast Thailand!
December 17, 1999: Visited the Udorn School for the Hearing Impaired and entertained approximately 300 children. We were nicely received by the Director and 15 teachers. Santa presented each child with a goody bag consisting of a toy, cookies, balloons, coloring books and rubber shoes. We also presented basket balls, soccer balls, badminton and tennis rackets and nets. Everyone had a wonderful time and we hope to visit again next year.
December 20, 1999: Eight of our Post members met Post Commander in Khon Kaen and visited the Khon Kaen School for the blind. We were warmly received and given a tour of the school facilities. We presented the School Director with $200.00 from the TLC Brotherhood and $200.00 from the AFTN Memorial Post 10249 as we have been supporting this school for several years.
December 28, 1999: Thirty members of our post including several wives and friends visited the Thare Orphanage/School at Thare near Sakorn Nakhon. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the band which marched around the playground. We were glad to have with us Mike Cosenza and his lovely wife who assisted Santa Claus in distributing 395 bags of gifts, which each included a toy, coloring books, school supplies, socks & rubber shoes, apple, orange, cookies, candy and balloons. Soda pop was also given to everyone!
The big event of the day however was when Father Khai received the complete set of band instruments of sixty pieces to replace the old equipment from long ago. The kids eyes really lit up when they saw the bright shiny musical instruments. Father Khai spoke with tears in his eyes and thanked each member of the TLC Brotherhood for their great generosity and compassion on this Christmas occasion. His fax has been attached on the updated Thare Page, where this report will also be placed shortly.
We hope to return to Thare again to represent you next year or perhaps even before. It is hard to leave those kids knowing they have nothing much. Father Khai and his Staff were each given a small gift from the TLC Brotherhood.
On Christmas day, our Post sponsored our annual Christmas party here at the Post home for over 200 children and 150 adults. Santa Claus (who stands nearly7 feet tall) was present to entertain the children. Santa along with the help of the VFW staff handed out gifts to each child. The children ate over 400 hot dogs and drank 72 liter of soda and consumed three large boxes of ice cream. The adults enjoyed a buffet dinner compliments of the post. The party lasted way into the evening. We have hopes for bigger plans next year.
On January 4, 2000: We visited the Phone Paisai Rehabilitation Center and presented the Director with $400.00 to purchase materials to manufacture many crutches and support walkers for distribution all along the Mekong River from Nong Khai to Ubon City. The center is fortunate to have in their employment a young Thai man who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident who is a genius with PVC pipe and steel materials. He manufactured himself a complete knee and lower leg from PVC pipe and couplings. This organization has assisted over 800 Thais that are crippled to walk again. Thanks for your support of this fine group of people!
January 18, 2000: We plan to visit the Udorn Mentally Retarded School near the old Ramasun Station. There are 60 children and 12 teachers. Each child will be presented a gift with fruit, cookies, balloons and toys, plus soda pop and ice cream. We will also present sporting equipment and rice and a small gift for the Director and staff members. We hope to continue our support of this fine school.
We here at AFTN Memorial Post 10249 are proud to represent the TLC Brotherhood. Together we have made great strides to assist the children in Northeast Thailand in memory of our lost Brothers. May God bless each and everyone of you for your generous charity to the little children who send you their love.
You do America proud. God Bless the USA.
TLC Brotherhood Assistance Committee
|How It All Started & 1999 Aid||Aid in 2000|
|Aid in 2001||Aid in 2002|
|Aid in 2003||Aid in 2004|
|Aid in 2005||Aid in 2006|
|Joel Brown's STOCK CAR||NKP DAYS - October 2002|
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