Editor’s Note: This story was updated on November 18, 2019, to correct information about where Don Super was stationed. Super translated Laotian radio communications at a research field station in Thailand, not in Laos as originally reported in the print version of this story that ran in the November 13, 2019, Methow Valley News.
“As soon as I got to the states and out of the Army, I knew that – sooner or later – I would want to go to Laos and see what I helped do,” Methow resident Don Super said recently.
Presentation on Saturday
Don Super and John Jones will tell their stories and show a video about their trip and their steps toward healing and reconciliation in a presentation, “Southeast Asia – A Veteran’s Perspective,” at the Twisp Valley Grange on Saturday (Nov. 16) from 3 to 6 p.m. Stewart and Schimpf will also share stories and photos.
Admission is by donation. All donations benefit the COPE Rehabilitation Centre in Laos.
That opportunity – Super’s first trip to the region in almost 50 years – came last February, when Super hooked up with John Jones, a friend from Tonasket who served on the Vietnam/Cambodian border and has visited Southeast Asia several times on a mission of reconciliation.
Super enlisted in the U.S. Army Security Agency in 1968 to avoid the draft. Given a choice of learning Russian, Chinese or Laotian, he picked Laotian. He received a year of intensive language instruction at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, plus lessons in Laotian history and culture.
“It was a wonderful experience to learn about a whole different culture. I still think the Laotians are the most hospitable people I’ve ever met on the planet,” Super said.
But until he got to Asia, he was taught nothing about the war there. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” Super said. “I knew I would be trained to speak a foreign language, but didn’t know what the job would entail. I knew nothing about Laos.”
Super wasn’t alone. The relentless bombing campaign in Laos is often referred to as the “secret war.”
Stationed at a research field station in Thailand, Super translated Laotian radio communications and documents. “My primary duty was target acquisition — providing bombing coordinates,” he said. He also supplied troops with information to rescue U.S. pilots and crews.
“I was pretty much into it for about six months, but then I started wondering why we were killing all these innocent people. It was clear it was not just military targets,” Super said. “Seven to eight months into it, I became aware of what I’d been doing. I knew sooner or later I would have to go back and take a look at it.”
After his deployment in Thailand in 1969-70, Super worked at the National Security Agency in the U.S., writing daily situation reports detailing military activity in Laos.
The covert air campaign was devastating. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs in Laos. That’s more bombs than the U.S. dropped on both Germany and Japan during all of World War II. Today, much of Laos is still pockmarked with craters 10 feet deep and 50 feet across, Super said.
The U.S. dropped both large munitions and cluster bombs. Since a third of the cluster bombs didn’t explode on impact, more than 80 million unexploded bombs still litter Laos today. This unexploded ordnance has killed and maimed at least 20,000 Laotians, who trigger the deadly bombs during daily activities like farming. An ongoing campaign to eradicate this destructive legacy has safely detonated 1 million of these deadly bomblets.
Super knew what he wanted to see on his trip to Laos. High on his list was the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Rehabilitation Centre. COPE helps provide prosthetics to people who’ve lost limbs from unexploded ordnance as well as from traffic and work accidents.
He and Jones also visited caves where Laotians had taken refuge. They went to the Plain of Jars, an area covered with thousands of ancient megalithic stone funerary urns, many damaged by bombing.
While the Laotians were characteristically gracious during his recent visit, Super’s language proficiency drew some wary looks from older Laotians. “That tipped them off that I’d been doing something a long time ago,” he said.
Super and Jones are sharing their stories and the history of the war, along with their steps toward healing and reconciliation, at presentations around the county.
They’re joined by two other Okanogan County residents who served in Southeast Asia who are sharing their own experiences. Michael Stewart served two tours in Vietnam and was involved in the only tank-to-tank combat in the war. Karen Schimpf was a nurse in the U.S. Army who treated children and people with combat injuries, tropical illnesses and PTSD. Schimpf spent much of her off-duty time in Vietnam with children orphaned by the war.
Stewart and Schimpf have been traveling to Southeast Asia for eight years, where they’ve mentored individuals and helped build libraries. “We both share a need to help and felt very bad about the way our country had been involved there. Guilt can be a good thing,” Schimpf said.
Jones first visited POW camps in Cambodia five years ago. He also sought out Vietcong soldiers he’d fought during the war. “This was an incredible journey of reconciliation and trust in humanity. I was truly rewarded by their willingness to forgive and share their stories,” he said.