There and Back Again
A Navy Chaplain Reunites With His Past
I approached the ATM, saw the screen, and immediately turned to Chaps.
He read the glowing text and guided me through a series of prompts. A moment later, 3,000 Baht - roughly $100 - dispensed from the machine.
"Thank you, sir."
"Mai bpen arai." No problem.
We were in Thailand for "Cobra Gold 2013," an annual multi-week military exercise, in which Royal Thai, American, and other international forces conduct training to strengthen relationships and ensure regional stability. I had never been to Thailand, and was excited to see a new country and experience its culture. Chaps, on the other hand, was excited for far more personal reasons.
Chaplain Pon Chanthaphon became a naturalized American citizen in 2008, but his remarkable story begins under poor and inauspicious circumstances halfway around the world. Born in Vientiane, Laos, Chaplain Chanthaphon was one of 11 children. His mother, Bounthanh, was a homemaker and raised the family. His father, Yod, an officer and military parachutist monitor in the Royal Laotian Army, fought the communists from neighboring Vietnam.
For the Chanthaphon family, the communist threat reached its tipping point in 1991.
"My dad served time in a concentration camp," says Chaps. "After he got out, he was watching the news one day and heard about more uprisings in Laos. We moved in and out of the villages, which made it easier to hide. The communists tried to capture us, but we escaped."
In the heart of monsoon season, the Chanthaphons took a paddleboat across the Mekong River. When they reached Thailand, they hired a truck to take them to safety. They were first taken to Nong Saeng refugee camp, in Nakhon Phanom province, where they stayed for four months. Later, they were moved to Phanat Nikhom, another refugee camp. Chaplain Chanthaphon was 14 years old.
Located in Chon Buri province, two hours east of Bangkok, Phanat Nikhom was an earthly purgatory, a netherworld between a bleak past and an uncertain future. Although the camp protected its refugees from the violent outside world, it did contain its own existential threats and harsh conditions from within.
"We'd bathe and cook with the same water," says Chaps. "There was a lot of illness, and the guards weren't friendly. One man tried to escape, but he was caught, beat up, and thrown in jail."
For sleep, multiple families were forced to share the hard earth in a single shelter, and the day-to-day routine was filled with labor and schooling.
A resilient and determined boy, Chanthaphon washed dishes at the camp's daycare center for 100 Baht a month. To put his salary in perspective, 100 Baht is just enough to buy a Happy Meal. When he wasn't working, he was studying English. Like many refugees in the camp, he hoped to one day make it to America. He didn't have to hope for long.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was founded in 1950. Originally established to administer aid and relief to displaced Europeans after World War II, the organization also works with churches in America to find sponsor families for refugees abroad. Without the UNHCR, the Chanthaphons couldn't have hoped to ever leave Phanat Nikhom.
"We received a letter from our sponsor," says Chaps. "It was a family from Iowa. They were Lutheran, and were a part of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services."
Six months after entering the camp, the Chanthaphons were on a plane to Des Moines.
In America, the Chanthaphons led a relatively normal life. They lived in a rental home and bought clothes from a nearby thrift store. Chaplain Chanthaphon attended school and participated in sports. The sponsor family and the teachings of Lutheranism, in particular, had a profound impact on him growing up, so in November 2001, he enrolled in Concordia Seminary, in St. Louis.
During his third year at Concordia, Chanthaphon was sent to New Orleans to serve as the vicar at a local church. It was 2004, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were escalating.
"One particular day, I led a prayer at the church," he said. "I prayed for military chaplains and for our service men and women. At the time, my understanding of chaplains was that they should promote peace. I wanted to learn more about what they do."
In 2009, three years after graduation, Chanthaphon reported to Officer Development School, in Newport, R.I. Today, he serves as the battalion chaplain for 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, in Okinawa, Japan.
On the second Saturday of Cobra Gold, we were given liberty. It was the middle of winter, but in Thailand there are only two temperatures: hot and hotter. We piled into the van, gave our driver the hand-drawn map, and began our trip, AC blaring. Chaps sat shotgun, and as we bounced along the half-paved highway he'd point to landmarks he remembered.
The drive took longer than expected, and the closer we got, the quieter Chaps became. I thought about the hardships he had faced, the challenges he overcame, and the transformation he had undergone. I tried to place myself in his position, to feel what he was feeling, but I quickly realized that was impossible. When we finally arrived, the van pulled off the road and parked along the gravel shoulder.
"We are here," said Chaps. After more than 20 years, the journey had come full circle.
Today, the Phanat Nikhom refugee camp is a relic of its former self. What was once the home to countless refugees, is now a modern military base. As we approached the barbed-wire gates, two armed guards confronted us. Chaps spoke to them, and after a few tense minutes, we were allowed to enter. Walking through the base, Chaps identified the areas where certain places used to be.
"The processing building was over there," he said. "We got our food and medical care from here."
We didn't stay long, but the symbolism of the trip will last a lifetime. Chaps was visibly moved by the experience.
"I had to hold in the tears," he said. "It was a speechless, overwhelming moment. There are a lot of memories there."
I asked him what it meant to return as an American. A wide smile broke across his face.
"There's nothing better than being free."