Douglas Bonner ’80
In 1971, I was an American expatriate teen living in Vientiane, the capital of the Kingdom of Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River. During the Vietnam War, Laos was officially neutral, but the hard truth was that because the Ho Chi Minh Trail — the principal supply route for North Vietnamese (NVA) military operations — stretched through much of its country, Laos was home to a “Secret War.” The CIA conducted one of its longest sustained paramilitary operations ever in Laos.

One summer evening, my father, an undercover CIA operations officer, asked, “Dougie, want to join me for an overnight trip up country?” This wasn’t going to be just any trip; after all, my dad supervised paramilitary operations for a living. (In fact, he once asked me to help identify a Russian KGB agent who had unexpectedly visited our home.)

Our destination was an isolated mountain village called Nam Yu near the Chinese border. As reported by the U.S. press, Nam Yu was a CIA listening post and a training and recruiting area for Hmong and Yao tribesmen fighting NVA regulars in northeastern Laos. Before it fell in February 1973, Nam Yu also was a staging area for intelligence gathering across the Chinese border.

We made the journey in a small Air America Porter turboprop plane, which rapidly descended through the surrounding mountains for a heart-stopping touch down on a short and narrow dirt landing strip atop a plateau. When we scrambled out of the aircraft, it dawned on me that I was in one of the remotest corners of the world. I saw traditional Laotian wooden huts, elevated on stilts. Yao tribeswomen in embroidered black and red silk dresses and cloth headdresses were tending to their children playing in the road. Not a single adult male tribesman was in sight.

Doug Bonner as a young teen aboard a Thai fishing boat
Photo: Douglas G. Bonner Jr.
Doug Bonner ’80 as a young teen aboard a Thai fishing boat near Pattaya on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand.
During this clandestine trip, I met two CIA paramilitary case officers, one of whom invited me to fire off a half-dozen rounds from a Beretta submachine gun at a paint can. On one wall of the CIA headquarters l saw large-scale maps of Laos, highlighted by different colors and arrows, which I assumed were troop positions and movements.

Even with my untrained eye, I was witnessing a rare juxtaposition of a secret CIA paramilitary base and Yao tribespeople living as they had for centuries in the remote mountains of northern Laos. I felt privileged to make the journey with my father. I was certain that no other American boy had made such a trip, and kept it to myself until many years later.

The next year, as I entered ninth grade in Bethesda, Md., I had a newfound self-confidence in my ability to adjust to any cultural environment. Whether this was born from adapting to life in a poor, landlocked Asian country where you had to learn Laotian to make do, eating raw sugar cane carved with a machete, sampling my first Lao-Lao — the potent rice whiskey of Laos — or seeing large clumps of unregulated opium for sale at the morning market, my eyes had been opened to the world.

Unsurprisingly, I studied international relations at Bucknell. I was a shoo-in for study abroad with four years in Laos under my belt, studying in Paris during my junior year. There was no culture shock for this American in Paris.

The COVID-19 pandemic that is challenging today’s college students is the Nam Yu experience of their young lives. By confronting and enduring the pandemic, they will gain strength, resilience and adaptability that will serve them well the rest of their lives — traits that I discovered in myself as a boy visiting the northern mountains of Laos.

Douglas Bonner ’80 is a partner and technology lawyer with the Potomac Law Group in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Bucknell University Alumni Association board.

Doug Bonner ’80, age 13, at Pattaya Beach, in Thailand.
Doug Bonner ’80 with his dad, Douglas G. Bonner Jr., in Singapore.
Doug Bonner ’80, age 11, with a snake charmer in Penang Malaysia.
Yao mother and child, in Northern Laos, 1969.
Miao women, in Northern Laos, 1968.
Mekong River, in Northern Laos, 1969.
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Douglas Bonner III ’80 had an eclectic childhood, bouncing around Vietnam War-era Southeast Asia with his CIA agent father, Douglas Jr. Check out some photos from that time, most of which were taken by his father.