From refugee camp to the Air Force

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. — Senior Airman Yia Thao, a 19th Airlift Wing Judge Advocate paralegal, was raised to know that hard work reaps great rewards. The work ethic and dedication that builds a better future runs deep in his family and continues through Thao and his siblings today.

Thao was born in Thailand in the American refugee camp of Bamvinah. Throughout his childhood, he watched his parents use their skills in agriculture to ensure their family would be successful. His parents came to the refugee camp from the jungles of Thailand and built a family with the means they were given. They learned early on to be innovative because of the resources they lacked.

The family was provided several opportunities in the refugee camp that contributed to their quick and successful assimilation to the American way of life. From learning basic English to being introduced to things many people take for granted, the Thaos were prepared for the culture shock the U.S. often presents.

“There were a lot of opportunities in the refugee camp. There were English teachers, and C-130 (Hercules) would drop off food and stuff,” Thao said. “For my parents, it was going from living in the jungle and being similar to hunter-gatherers to saying, ‘Oh look, there’s a TV right in front of us.’ They spent 15 years in the refugee camp. It was like a 180 for them, and I think they saw even more opportunity for us if we left.”

During the Vietnam War, Thao’s uncle, at 15 years old, became a scout for the U.S. forces. His uncle is one of the main reasons he and his family were able to move to America. His uncle was given the opportunity to become an American citizen and in turn provided his family a placement in a special lottery to become citizens as well.

Moving from the refugee camp when he was only 2 years old, he relocated to Wisconsin with other families who had the same fortune as he and his parents.

“My parents and I, not knowing English, we had to move to a community where there were other Hmong people,” Thao said. “And, of course, every Hmong person is related to one another somehow, so it made it easier for us.”

The change for Thao’s family was immense. He and his parents were immediately placed in an unfamiliar and busy industrial environment. After living in a refugee camp for years and dedicating a lifetime building on agricultural skills, Thao’s parents were forced to learn a completely different way of life.

Thao and his family learned to adapt to the new environment and way of living not by choice but by sheer necessity. After working in a factory for some time and being exposed to the industrial lifestyle, they soon realized they missed the freedom and nostalgia of working with the ground. So the Thaos moved to Missouri, where they invested their time and money into owning and operating their own chicken and produce farm.

“To see my parents coming from the jungle, to owning and running the farm and running a very successful business, I realize the platform that I’ve been given is such an advantage compared to what they had,” Thao said. “I should be just as hard-working and determined as they were, and maybe be even better off later.”

With 11 younger brothers and sisters, Thao learned reliability and hard work are essential to success. Living on the farm, the children would all do their part to take care of the farm and the family.

“Every kid helped, no matter how old you were,” Thao said. “I remember waking up at 5 a.m. to work. I really wanted to play basketball growing up, but I couldn’t because I had to work on the farm.”

Learning at an early age that sacrifices sometimes needed to be made to accomplish a more important goal, Thao explained that you might miss out on some things, but you are provided much more in return, such as close family ties and seeing the fruits of your labor.

Other obstacles were part of Thao’s lifestyle growing up. The language barrier played a significant factor during the early years of Thao’s life. Whether it was simply trying to answer a question in class or trying to make friends at school, the effort that many take for granted was something Thao struggled with every day.

“Going to school for the first time and not knowing English was hard,” Thao said. “My parents read to us every night to help us learn English. They realized that it was such a disadvantage for us and did everything they could to help us learn it.”

Giving back

The success of Thao and his family and their opportunity to come to the U.S. did not happen by circumstance. Their family history of American aid during the Vietnam conflict provided them the opportunity that many other refugees would never have.

Thao explained that the U.S. has given him and his family so much that he felt not joining or giving something back would never satisfy him.

“If I became a billionaire and never served the country, that gave me the opportunity to become a billionaire, it would never satisfy me as a person,” Thao said. “I love the Air Force culture and being able to be part of a bigger system to see the mission get done, whether on the enlisted side or the commissioned side.”

Recently, Thao became an American citizen. Normally, the process can take anywhere from two months to three years or more and could cost thousands of dollars. Because he is a military member, the process was streamlined and free for the Airman.

“It was awesome,” Thao said. “The military made it very easy for me to become an American citizen and I am very grateful. Growing up in the U.S., it was always a little bit embarrassing when someone asked me if I was an American citizen and I had to say no. Now I can say ‘yes’ freely.”

Thao encourages people to keep things simple. He said that nothing is ever too complicated. It might be as simple as breaking something down into smaller steps. He explained that investing in yourself is important as well, whether you want to be smarter, more athletic or healthier. He encourages people to make time for others and themselves.

On Feb. 5, Thao was selected for the Airman Scholarship Commissioning Program. The program offers active-duty enlisted personnel, who can complete all bachelor degree and commissioning requirements in 2 to 4 years, the opportunity to earn a commission as an Air Force ROTC cadet. 

Thao said he plans to attend the University of Arkansas to complete his degree in political science.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting his or her Air Force story.

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