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March/April 2024 -   -  



“They are dead! They are dead!”

I heard those chilling words screamed by a three-year-old named Quoi as he burst through the door to his family home in Laos in 2020. He had heard an explosion just minutes after he’d left his older brothers on their cricket-hunting adventure in the forest near his home. It was supposed to be a fun day.

Quoi’s parents, Noy and Lae, tried to tell their distraught young son he must have heard a controlled explosion being done by a UXO clearance team removing ordnance to make their farmland safer.

But Quoi was insistent, and nothing would calm him. He then led his parents to the spot where his elder brothers had been playing. They found the boys, Don and Phon, lying motionless. Don, their nine-year-old, was dead. Phon, age seven, managed to cling to life for a few hours, but the injuries caused by the blast were just too extensive. He died later that day. The parents fell to their knees and wept.

Two sons, seven and nine years old, killed by a cluster bomb left from the Vietnam War, nearly half a century before, its deadly power still as strong today as the day it was dropped on Laos.

When the war ended in Southeast Asia in 1975, I was glad to be out of there. I immediately closed the door on that chapter of my life and put it on the shelf. I didn’t reexamine it until I started to write a memoir about my time in the war. In the process, I had to recall my memories and also do research to verify facts. That’s when I was shocked to find out that the war had not ended for people in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

Many of them were still living in fear of being injured, maimed, or killed from unexploded ordnance left from the extensive bombing missions conducted during the war. Laos, the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world, still has an estimated 80 million unexploded bombs scattered nationwide. More than 50,000 men, women, and children have been injured or killed from UXO since 1975. In Vietnam and Cambodia, the UXO number is more staggering, adding up to over 100 million.

As a Vietnam War veteran, I contemplated what I could do to help. I recalled a book I read years ago: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. He wrote about uncomplicated ideas kids learn when they’re in kindergarten and suggested adults could use them in their daily lives, applying them to family, work, and the world around us.

I liked all those simple and sensible ideas. But the main one that hit me was “clean up your own mess.”

I decided to help clean up unexploded ordnance in Laos. I started by giving 10 percent of my book sales to an organization that works to find and destroy UXO. I targeted my donation to removing UXO in Laos, working through the Mines Advisory Group, MAG America (https://www.magamerica.org). I wanted to do my small part to help save lives and build better futures.

A Laotian volunteer at work finding and removing unexploded ordinance. (Courtesy Angelica Pilato)

Throughout Laos, many parents live with constant fear that their children may not make it safely through the day. For Noy and Lae, that fear was realized. The only way to free the people of Laos from danger is to safely detonate the bombs, one by one with a controlled, safe explosion rather than an unexpected, violent, potentially fatal one. Each bomb removed makes the people of Laos a little safer.

Time is no protection against these scattered killers; their power remains as deadly today as the day when they were dropped. Together, we can protect men, women, and children from fear and the danger of UXO. You can be part of the effort to rid Laos of the surviving cluster bombs that continue to threaten lives every hour of every day.

If you’d like to help, contact me at angelpilato@yahoo.com. Please put “No More UXO” in the subject line.

Retired USAF Lt. Col. Angel Pilato served a tour of duty at Udorn Royal Thai Air Base in 1971-72.




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