LAO PEOPLE'S DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC, LAO PEOPLE'S DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC –
It’s 4:15 p.m. in Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and U.S. Army Sgt. Harley Miller, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Mortuary Affairs assistant, is on her way back to a guest house after a long day of wet screening and digging.
While a cluster of mud-clad boots climb onto the returning bus, Harley takes her seat and wipes the sweat from her brow before searching for something inside her backpack. Soon after, the bus arrives to the town of Ban Ban, and Harley finds what she’s been searching for: a few pieces of candy that she had packed the night prior.
As the recovery team shuffles off the bus, Harley looks around until she finds James, a local youngster who’s been eagerly awaiting her return, and the candy she always brings him.
“He sees me every day and knows, ‘Oh, this lady’s got candy!’” Harley recalls. “Every time I see him I think, ‘my boy! There he is!’”.
It’s a simple interaction, but one that carries much more weight than most would expect. While most of the recovery team greets the boy normally, Harley and James smile in recognition, for they’ve met each other on one other occasion.
“I came to Laos last year on my very first mission,” Harley said. “Me and another noncomissioned officer (NCO) were the only ones not slotted for Vietnam at the time. I was told two months in advance that I was coming here.”
New to the agency and ready to get started, Harley began prepping for her first visit to the country.
“I never thought I’d be going anywhere is Southeast Asia my entire career,” Harely said. “I was very nervous. I was a supply NCO and I was also a recovery NCO. I had to sign all this paperwork, and I had to make sure I was taking accountability for all the equipment. I went in there confident as well as I could be.”
Nervous, but excited, Harley embarked on the overseas journey, ready to assist wherever help was needed. When the team touched ground, Harley’s first impressions of the country made a lasting impact on her.
“It was just an eye opener to me to see how different everything was here compared to the states,” Harley said. “They live off of what they build and create. Seeing how hands-on they were with everything; it was amazing.”
Although new to the scene, Harley wouldn’t be performing the mission alone. It wasn’t long before she met a fellow mentor that proved an invaluable resource. U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Reginald Cormier, DPAA Life Support investigator, not only supported Harley, but also introduced her to James.
“Cormier was probably one of the best leaders I had while I was over here,” Harley said. “He not only understood his job, but he also got to know everybody on the team. He was an outstanding and supportive leader.”
One day, on their way back from the dig site, Cormier spotted James near the guest house they were staying at.
“He noticed that this little boy was always sitting around and seeing us return every day after work like clockwork,” Harley said. “So, Cormier started bringing him American candy that he had brought for himself. I think it was the fact that he was not only trying to build a bond with this child, but it also kind of helped him feel a little more at home. He had two girls at the time and just had a baby recently.”
Quick to follow his example, it wasn’t long before Harely was doing the same, making sure she had plenty of candy stocked before the next day of work. Soon after, James’s mother also took notice. She was happy to meet the pair.
“Harley was friendly and very beautiful,” said Chinda Chanthavong, local restaurant owner and mother to James. “Harley had a good heart and we were very happy to meet her.”
Harley reciprocated the warm greeting.
“His mother was always very, very kind to us,” Harley said. “Every time we would go by, she would offer us these sugarcane drinks and they were delicious! Her English was very good, so communication wasn’t hard. She was just so sweet.”
Now familiar with both Chinda and James, Harley wanted to do something kind before departing Laos at the close of the mission. Chinda was pregnant at the time with her second child, so Harley and the other team members came up with a plan.
“Before we left, me and a couple of others from the agency had gotten some baby clothes together from the market to give to Chinda,” Harley said. “It was going to be colder over here for them, and we wanted the baby to be warm so she wouldn’t have to worry. We got some clothes for James as well.”
Chinda kindly accepted the gifts.
“It made me very happy,” Chinda said. “It was very touching. I still have the clothes. It’s a good memory.”
With her first mission completed, Harley returned to headquarters with a little more experience under her belt. Little did she know that exactly one year later, she would not only return to the country on a separate mission, but also to the exact same dig site and guest house. She would get to see James and Chinda once again.
“When I got wind that I was coming back here, I was so excited,” Harley said. “I was like, ‘I need to stock up on candy for this kid. I can’t wait to see him. I hope he recognizes me!’”
While Cormier had moved on to a different assignment, Harley would continue the tradition he started.
“I messaged Cormier and let him know I’m going to see James again,” Harley said. “He was so happy to hear that. It was just overall the best experience I could get.”
James, still recognizing Harley after a year, was immensely excited to see her again. However, this time it wasn’t just him and Chinda, but his newborn brother Aque and several cousins, who were just as excited to receive candy as he had been.
“I think it was more exciting just getting to see more kids in the household,” Harley said. “It was nice seeing that they’re still thriving and still doing so well. It was also really nice just to see familiar faces again, that they’re healthy and happy and enjoying their lives the best way they can.”
Chinda was also surprised.
“I noticed she came here, and I was like ‘oh, that’s the person who gave me a gift for my son,’” Chinda said. “I remembered her. I was very happy to see her again.”
Happy to continue the tradition, Harley not only reconnected with the Chanthavongs, but also encouraged her teammates to do the same.
“Being able to see Cormier doing what he did, he not only stepped up as a leader, but as a human being,” Harley said. “I really admired that as a junior leader. I wanted to replicate that. It’s a way for us to show the local community that we mean well.”
As Harley continues to support DPAA’s mission to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation, she reflects on the positivity this experience has given her.
“It only takes a couple of seconds to share something small, so if I can give a piece of candy and make this little boy’s day, that makes my life even better and makes me feel like I’m creating that future bond for others to come as well. Yes there’s days where it’s raining and we’re miserable, or it could be hot and we’re just dying in the heat, but you’re still reminded that you’re not just doing this to represent the military in general, but for the families that lost their family member. I’m proud to be in the agency on every level I can be in, whether its going out into the field and digging, or representing us as a small type ambassador for the US and the agency with a piece of candy.”
For future ambassadors to Laos, James likes Dum Dums in particular, but a friendly face and positive disposition seem to go just as long a ways.