American Secret War Veteran Works Toward a Better Future for Laos

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Mike Burton at a Mines Advisory Group (MAG) Demining Site preparing to detonate a cluster bomb that was found. Photo Credit: Kayleb Lee

Col. Mike Burton makes his first visit back to Laos nearly 50 years after he was deployed to serve in the American Secret War, this time to address the impact and support the clearance of UXOs. In an interview with Laotian Times, he discusses healing the wounds of war and creating greater hope for peace.

Retired USAF Colonel Michael Burton found himself on a mission in Laos during the 1960s due to a clerical error. He spoke Spanish but somebody put the ‘x’ against French instead. He was stationed in Thailand and like many Americans at the time, he had no idea where Laos was.   

“My base was right on the Mekong River. A civil war was going on there and America and several other countries signed a Geneva accord in 1962 that guaranteed their neutrality. But everyone was violating it and Laos was caught in the middle of that,” recalls Col. Burton who was just 26 when he first came to Laos in 1966.

He reported to the US Ambassador during his first time in Vientiane and he was amazed to see how half the city was controlled by the Royal Lao government and half by Pathet Lao, a communist political movement and organization, and they didn’t fight each other.

He says, “The more in-depth I understood the situation, the more bothered I was by it.  There was no military strategy and as a young man, I was pretty confused about what our role was supposed to be. I was training Lao and Thai pilots on the T-28 aircraft but there was no strategic tactic that we were here for.”

The American Secret War in Laos was fought between 1964-1973 and during this decade the US dropped more than 2.5M tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing sorties—equal to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Eighty million of those bombs did not detonate at the time and went on to affect the lives of 25,000 people who either died or were grievously injured by them in the coming years.

Col. Burton remembers visiting a village during his posting, and he asked the headmaster of a school, who was also the village chief, “what he needed from us”. The headmaster promptly replied, “I need you to go away, this is not our war and you are going to get us killed.”

“Two weeks later he was killed. That really brought it home to me,” he says, speaking about the futility of the war. “There was another time when a child stepped on a bomb and lost an arm and, unfortunately, they couldn’t arrange a helicopter on time to get him to proper medical care in Udon Thani. He died before he got there,” he added. 

Col. Burton now serves as the Board Chair of the US-based educational and advocacy organization Legacies of War, which seeks to raise awareness about the American Secret War in Laos and Vietnam War-era conflicts in Cambodia and Vietnam. It also advocates for funds to remove bombs in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam and raise funds for victims’ assistance. 

This is Col. Burton’s first visit to Laos since he left the country in 1968, and he is accompanied by the Legacies of War team. 

Legacies of War Board Chair, Mike Burton, and LoW Executive Director, Sera Koulabdara, at a meeting in Vientiane.        Photo Credit: Kayleb Lee

He started his advocacy work in the 1970s while he was still serving in the US Army. Several people whom he knew from Laos were displaced because of the war and found themselves in America and called him asking for help.

“I can’t even imagine how difficult it was for them to end up in a foreign country where they didn’t know the language, the money, or how things work. I started organizing funding to help them get jobs, training, and education. Several people had done their undergraduate degree in Laos but had no records in the US. I worked with the Department of Education to set up a program to help them get recognition for the education they had so that they could study further. 

“It is just not enough to have a family come in and assign them to another family and forget about it,” he said.

Col. Burton then thought about the people that were left behind in Laos. He knew how dangerous it was as 25 percent of the land was affected by these weapons. At the time, he thought naively, “Let’s get them out of there”. But now he knows there is a difference between being bomb safe and being useful. He doesn’t think the land will ever be useful.

“It’s our mess but it is their country. We want to ensure that we follow the procedures the Lao government wants. The number of accidents has reduced considerably due to education but they still happen. I mainly focus on advocating at the congressional level for the dollars as I am too old and decrepit to get out in the field and remove bombs. But I can help in arranging funding to the right organization to do that,” he says.

Although it is devasting to realize that it might take well over 1,000 years to clear out all the bombs, the war veteran feels it shouldn’t be discouraging for relevant stakeholders to put in the work. He says that there is now technology in place to find out if a place can be impact-free but unfortunately, there are sections of the land in Laos that might have to be forgotten, as they are too heavily bombed.

“The priority is to see what can be developed. I am trying to get more money to make it happen. We are capable of making a lot more progress in the next couple of years than we have made in the last decade,” he says, encouragingly. In 2022, the UXO sector received funding of USD 45 million (the highest so far), and Legacies of War is advocating for at least USD 50 million for 2023.   

Class Photo of Spoon Village teachers and students with Legacies of War. Photo Credit: Kayleb Lee

During his visit, Col. Burton held meetings with relevant Lao ministries and the US embassy. He also engaged with partner organizations like MAG and HALO, to understand how things were going on-ground and what further support was required. From Vientiane, he would be heading out for field visits to Savannakhet, Pakse, and Luang Prabang.

“These visits will probably be the most difficult thing for me to deal with. So, I am bracing myself for it. I am very grateful that I have not felt ill-will by anybody here, but I feel the responsibility to keep focused on fundraising to ensure a better future for the people of this country,” says Col. Burton.

“Yes, we have an obligation but it’s the future we are looking at.”