During the Vietnam War's "secret war" in Southeast Asia, Leck Sengsoulichanh fought with the Laotian army as it supported U.S. troops.

For his efforts, he spent 13 years doing hard labor in a "re-education" camp. When he was released, Sengsoulichanh and his family immigrated to the United States, joining the Lao community in the Twin Cities.

"He was one of the last people released from the re-education camps and one of the last to join the refugee camps in Thailand," said Rattana Sengsoulichanh, one of his sons.

Leck Sengsoulichanh, of north Minneapolis, died Sept. 8 at 81. His family described him as a champion for freedom and an advocate for Lao education.

Sengsoulichanh grew up in a village in the Laotian province of Savannakhet. During the Vietnam War, eastern Savannakhet was crossed by the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a military supply route from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong fighting in South Vietnam.

Just as it did in Vietnam, civil war raged in Laos from the late 1950s into the 1970s. Laos had its own Communist insurgency, led by the North Vietnam-allied Pathet Lao.

Sengsoulichanh, faced with a lack of economic opportunities in his rural homeland, joined the Royal Lao Army in the early 1960s. He fought the Pathet Lao and participated in the broader U.S. effort in Indochina during the Vietnam War.

"My father was in the Royal Lao Army's fight against the Communists with the U.S.," Rattana said.

The so-called secret war was a covert U.S. operation in Laos and Cambodia in which the United States rained bombs onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail and worked with the Royal Lao Army against the Pathet Lao.

Sengsoulichanh first came to the United States in 1966 to learn English at a U.S. Army base, his son said. He went back to Laos to teach English to Royal Lao Army soldiers, helping them communicate with U.S. forces.

In 1971, he returned to the United States for more language training, winning certification as an English language instructor. Back in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, by now a captain in the Royal Lao Army, he directed a military-run English-language institute.

Vientiane fell to the Pathet Lao in late 1975, several months after North Vietnam captured Saigon.

Sengsoulichanh was sent to a hard-labor camp in Laos. "He tally-marked every single day in camp on his backpack and it came to 13 years and eight days," Rattana said.

His wife had died while he was held captive. After he was released, Sengsoulichanh took his four children and fled to Thailand. He arrived in Minnesota in June 1990. "We had a lot of family that had already settled in Minnesota," Rattana said.

Sengsoulichanh married again, to a woman he had met in Laos after his release, and they had two more children in the United States. He earned his GED in Minnesota in 1994, and an associate degree two years later.

Education was a passion for Sengsoulichanh, his son said. He was active in the Lao PTA (Parent Teacher Association) in Minneapolis and other community organizations. Along with other family members and Laotian expatriates in North America and France, he raised money for a new school in his home village in Laos.

In his neighborhood, Sengsoulichanh was known as an avid gardener. "All of our neighbors would see him out every day in the summer, tending flowers and vegetables," Rattana said.

Sengsoulichanh is survived by his wife, Julie Sengsoulichan; his children, Ratsamy, Korada, Gate, Kai, Rattana and Karuna, and nine grandchildren. Services have been held.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003