News | June 30, 2016

An American Story

By Chris Erbe

His life reads like a novel.

Chuepheng Lo, or Ping, as most people call him, was six years old in 1975 when he, his family and his entire village left their home in Laos and walked hundreds of miles over mountains and through jungles, mostly at night, to escape certain death at the hands of the Viet Cong.

Today, however, he is known as Chief Lo. In a badging ceremony April 6, Lo was named chief of the 70-member Defense Logistics Agency San Joaquin Police Force in California. Still in his first days on the job, he shared his remarkable story of adversity and resiliency.

Lo is of Hmong descent, a member of the mountain dwelling tribes of Laos. Lo’s father was the chief of the village of Somtong and the provincial governor of Xaiyaburi Province. Lo was the middle child in a family of seven siblings — four boys and three girls.

During the Vietnam War, the freedom-loving Hmong sided with the U.S. and fought the North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The trail went from North Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia, allowing the Viet Cong access into South Vietnam. By 1975, Laos had fallen into enemy hands, and the lives of the Hmong were in jeopardy. Lo was one of about 100,000 Hmong who fled to refugee camps in Thailand.

“One night, my dad got together with the other village elders,” Lo said. “We picked up the whole village and left. It was kind of like our ‘Trail of Tears’ that the American Indians went through, where we just walked from our hillside villages to the Thai-Laotian border, which was the Mekong River. We walked for about a month.”

The trek cost many lives. Out of 800 villagers who had started the journey, 600 made it to the river border.

“My most haunting memories about that exodus from Laos were of the elderly that didn’t make it,” Lo said. “I remember some of our people making a lean-to off the beaten path for two elderly couples, and they just got left there because they couldn’t make the trek anymore.”

Once the villagers reached the border, making the crossing over the Mekong River presented another challenge.

“We made makeshift rafts out of bamboo so we could cross the river into Thailand,” Lo said. “During the crossing, we lost several more people.”

Once Lo’s family made it into Thailand, they were put up in a refugee camp, where they stayed for about a year. Catholic Charities USA sponsored them and brought them to the United States in August 1976. They landed in the western part of Kansas, in the town of Goodland — a place that could not have been more different from where they came.

“Our sponsor was a retired lieutenant colonel who had fought in the Korean War,” Lo said. “To this day, we still call him Grandpa Hill. He was by himself and had a three-bedroom basement apartment where he put us up. We stayed there in Goodland for about two years under his sponsorship and with help from the local church.”

Lo started kindergarten unable to speak any English. In time, he learned his new language very well.

“One of the fortunate things for me was that I got to start at the beginning with an American education,” Lo said. ”People are surprised that I was born in Laos, came over at age seven and speak today without an accent. It was because I was able to take advantage of the education process in the United States.”

Lo continued his education, moving to Denver in 1979 and Stockton, California, in 1981. He joined the Army after receiving an ROTC commission and earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of California Santa Barbara. Lo retired from the Army after 20 years in 2012, having spent his career as a military police officer. During his time in the military, he served overseas tours in Alaska and Germany, an operational tour in Kuwait, and a combat tour in Iraq, earning a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and a Combat Action Badge.

When he considered his decision to commit to a 20-year career in the Army, Lo said it went beyond a sense of patriotic duty.

“It’s more about giving back — saying thank you to the young men and women who came over during the Vietnam War and basically liberated us and gave us an opportunity to come to the states,” he said. “In Laos, my dad’s goal was to save enough money so that he could send his oldest son to school and get an education. In the blink of an eye, my entire family got to come over and get an American education. Serving in the military was the only way I could pay back those brave men and women who went over to fight — especially the ones who never came back.”

After retiring, Lo stayed close to the military, serving as police operations major at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, and as deputy chief of police at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach Detachment Fallbrook, California.

Working now for DLA allows Lo to express his gratitude, not only for the military, but the community as well.

“Now that I’m retired from the military, I still want to serve,” he said. “I’ve been given the opportunity to serve by providing a safe and productive workplace to the community that supports the warfighter. It’s all possible because of DLA.”

Attending the recent ceremony where Lo received his chief’s badge and took the oath of office was one of his teachers from Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Stockton, California.

“He had planted the seed in me to never give up and always pushed me to do better and not to settle,” said Lo. “Seeing him there gave me a great sense that everything the community provided — it was not for nothing. It gives me a great feeling to give back to the community and serve at the local level.”

One of Lo’s goals is to become a role model for his community, especially for those in poor economic circumstances. Using himself as an example, he explains that he and his family came to America with nothing and, for a time, had to rely on the welfare system to survive.

“I talk to groups and tell them the welfare system is not meant to be an end in itself,” he says. “It should be used as leverage to spring forward. For those who consider welfare to be a closed-loop system, I point to myself as an example of someone who used the system to get an education and move ahead. But you have to want it and you have to work for it.”

During Lo’s badging ceremony, his mother and his wife attached the gold eagle pins, indicating rank, to his collar. Two of his brothers and a sister were there to support. In the audience were an unprecedented number of police chiefs, elected officials and well-wishers from surrounding communities. It’s natural that people like a story of triumph over adversity, of resiliency in the face of hardship, and Chuepheng Lo is the essence of that.