Following an NVA offensive in 1964, Y-Bler’s parents fled their native village in the Kontum Province of the Northern Central Highlands to seek refuge in the Buon Hang refugee camp in Phuoc An district of the Daklak province near Buon Me Thuot. While in Buon Hang, Y-Bler's father emerged as a local leader and staunch supporter of the FULRO movement. After the US withdrawal, the refugee camp was in extreme danger, as the NVA sought to torture and kill anyone associated with helping the American Forces, especially the Montagnard minorities. Consequently, Bler’s parents officially joined the FULRO movement and fled into the jungle in March of 1975. Two years later, in 1977, both of Y-Bler’s parents were killed in an NVA raid on their location. Later that day the FULRO Army secured the area and found Y-Bler hiding in a bush. He was around six years old at the time (Although we can never be certain, based on these eye-witness accounts, it is estimated that Y-Bler was born in the Buon Hang refugee camp around 1971).
The FULRO Army subsequently raised Y-Bler, which by all accounts, became his new family. Typical of the Sedang tribe, Y- Bler’s family did not have a last name. Consequently, Y-Bler’s first major decision following his parents’ death was choosing a last name for himself. "My grandmothers last name was Buonya, and I suggested it to him along with many other options. He loved the name Buonya, and every time he said it he would smile. The name stuck." recalls Y-Hin Nie, a tribal leader.
During his first few years as an orphan, the tribal women raised Y-Bler, as he was too young to undertake any serious responsibilities. Obligated to take care of a fallen FULRO leader's son, Y-Bler was placed under the guardianship of the FULRO Field Command once he could assume small responsibilities. After a brief stay in the custody of the Commander of the Sector Two Battlefield Unit, Y-Bler was placed under the guardianship of Paul Yuh, the acting FULRO Battlefield Commander in 1979. It was here where Y-Bler began to develop a respect for and love of learning.
Y-Bler’s pursuit of education partially spurred from his constant curiosity. “He was a curious boy", remarked Y-Pen Ayun. "He always asked questions about everything. He wanted to know how, why and what about everything". Y-Bler was especially curious about fighting and weapons, which may have attributed to his interest in fighting the NVA.
From a very young age, Y-Bler was always eager to fight the NVA and gain autonomy and freedom for his fellow Montagnards. His fearless attitude wasn't always for the best however, as he found out early in his childhood. When Y-Bler was about 11 years old he tagged along on a guerilla style raid on NVA forces. Sometime in the fighting the FULRO Army became separated and regrouped at a predetermined rendezvous point. Y-Bler never made it back. Fearing the worst, the FULRO Army sent scouts to look for him, but never found him. After 13 days of evading the NVA and putting his survival skills to the ultimate test, Y-Bler wandered back into camp unharmed and undoubtedly a more experienced soldier.
Several years later Y-Bler once again put his survival skills to the test during a reconnaissance mission, in which he was observing various NVA outposts. During his mission he noticed some NVA soldiers playing cards, which were a very valuable commodity in the isolated jungles. When the NVAsoldiers were not looking, Y- Bler sneaked into the camp and stole the cards from the table. Although Y-Bler was temporarily in danger when the NVA realized someone had infiltrated their camp, his hunger for action and adventure made him a hero amongst his friends.
In 1986 Paul Yuh, Y-Bler’s guardian, fell ill due to a burst appendix and subsequently died. Y-Pen Ayun succeeded him as the FULRO Battlefield Commander and became Y-Bler’s new guardian. By now at age 16, Y-Bler’s primary responsibilities included serving as a FULRO Army Scout and hunter for the tribe.
By all accounts, Y-Bler was the best sharpshooter in the group, both with a regular gun and the Montagnard bamboo gun. "He could hit anything", recalls Y-Pen Ayun. "When he was very young, he would always come to me and ask for more bullets because he had shot all of the ones that I gave him. I told him boy, hit your targets and you won't need any more bullets". Y-Bler took those words to heart and practiced until he became the best marksman in the tribe.
Y-Bler's marksmanship also made him a successful hunter. He and his friend Y-Khum Adrong frequently hunted together. "One time we were out for the day and we didn’t see anything except squirrel. Then out of nowhere Y-Bler fired a shot. I didn’t know what was going on because I didn’t see anything. He had shot a huge buffalo, but it was so far away that I could barley see it. It fed the tribe for weeks", recalls Y- Khum. Y-Bler's frequent success in jungle survival and everyday life and his constant love for nature and animals led to him acquiring the nickname "jungle boy". "He loved the animals and nature and loved all of his people. He dreamed of a day when Montagnards could all live peacefully in the jungle", recalls Y-Pen Ayun.
Shortly after living with Y-Pen Ayun, Y-Bler's eagerness for regular combat duty soon became a reality, as he was promoted to a rank of Sergeant and given his own AK-47 rifle. Y-Bler became a regular participant in FULRO Army guerilla styles raids on NVA positions and one of the most courageous fighters in the FULRO Army. "It wasn’t that he liked fighting, none of us did. He saw many horrible things in battle. He volunteered to fight because he loved his people and wanted to secure their freedom, and he was willing to sacrifice himself to achieve this. There is no doubt in my mind that Y-Bler would sacrifice himself for the freedom of the Montagnards", says Y-Pen Ayun, Y-Bler's guardian and FULRO Army Commander.
In February of 1992 in the jungles of the Modul Klri Province near the Vietnam and Cambodia border, the leaders of the FULRO Army sought assistance from the United Nations troops whom they had spotted earlier. After the UN denied their request for supplies and weapons, they contacted the office of the President of the United States, George H. Bush. After presenting their original documents from the United States promising material aide to continue fighting the communists, the US denied their request, but offered safe refuge to the United States, which the Montagnards accepted. Before boarding the helicopter Y-Bler’s last words were, "where are we going?" It was clear that he wanted to stay and continue fighting.
When Y-Bler and his fellow FULRO Army soldiers and their families arrived in the United States as refugees in October of 1992, his goal of securing freedom and autonomy for his Montagnard people never changed. The means of achieving that goal changed drastically however, as Y-Bler would not longer use weapons to fight the NVA. He would instead seek an education in hopes of one day going back to Vietnam and liberating his fellow Montagnards. This was his dream.
To say Y-Bler faced an uphill battle is an understatement. Not only was he illiterate in his native Rhade language, he also did not know any English. Just like in the battlefields, he took the challenge head on. Y·Bler constantly studied English, and before long, had taught himself how to read and write basic English as well as his native Rhade.
Y-Bler briefly stayed under the guardianship of Y-Pen Ayun and attended Smith High School. In 1993, Greensboro Day School, a private prepatory school in Greensboro, NC, acting on the advice of Don Scott, a Montagnard advocate, offered Y-Bler a full scholarship. In an effort to improve Y-Bler’s English by fully immersing him in the language and American culture however, the scholarship required Y-Bler to live with an American family and not with Y-Pen Ayun or any of his fellow Montagnards. Consequently, Gray and Janet Clark, whom had known him since his arrival in the United States, legally adopted Y-Bler (Although Y-Bler was 23 at the time, he was given the legal age of 17). Janet worked for Lutheran Family Services on the Montagnard relocation efforts and Gray was a respected priest.
Y-Bler was also extremely close with Greg and Debbie Dunn, who were also instrumental in the Montagnard relocation efforts, Greg’s experiences as a US Special Forces veteran provided a common bond between he and Y-Bler, as they both had fought against the NVA. Y-Bler frequently visited the Dunn's house because he could study quietly there and play with their dogs. The Dunns accepted Y-Bler as a member of their family and treated him like a son. Y-Bler loved them very much.
With his goal of obtaining an education to liberate his fellow Montagnards in mind, Y-Bler took advantage of the opportunity at Greensboro Day School. His drive and discipline compelled him to devote all of his time toward his education. At any given moment, Y-Bler could be found either in the library or student lounge studying, or seeking clarification from other students and teachers about what he had just learned. When other students were encouraged to take a break at times like lunch and recess, Y-Bler always chose to study instead. He never limited himself to the assigned readings, as he always went above and beyond what was required of him. Moreover, according to the Clark's, Y-Bler spent at least three hours per night studying at home. His constant drive and persistence inspired those around him and led to his academic success, and pushed him close to his ultimate goal.
Although he studied tremendously hard by himself, Y-Bler never isolated himself from others. He loved interacting with the students and teachers and asking them questions about US culture. Conversely, the students and staff enjoyed asking him questions about his experiences in the jungles. Y-Bler consistently brought a cheerful attitude and bright smile to school every day, and always managed to see the positive part of every situation. Although he faced many hardships throughout his life, he truly had the heart of a young boy.
Y-Bler’s education encompassed more than just textbooks, however, as he particularly looked forward to and excelled in art class. Sue Seagraves, the upper school art teacher at the time, took a keen interest in helping Y-Bler with his artwork, which eventually became an outlet for him to express himself. In addition to painting, Y-Bler also loved to play volleyball. Anyone who played with Y-Bler can vividly recall him calling out the score, then saying "here we go", hitting his classic unclerhand serve, and of course giggling after winning a point.
Y-Bler also stayed very active outside of school. In addition to singing in the choir at the Montagnard International Bible Church, he also participated in the youth program at Fellowship Presbyterian Church and worked at a grocery store on nights and weekends. He took great pride in providing for himself, and his discipline and drive made him an exceptional worker. He also learned the value of a dollar, when after months of saving, Y-Bler bought an electric guitar and learned to play it. Despite his success in the workplace, Y-Bler’s primary focus always remained on school.
Academically, Y-Bler, as he had done throughout his life, continued to push himself to the limits by attempting to enroll in the most advanced courses available to him. The school placed Y-Bler on a self-guided curriculum, where he would report to the library each day and teach himself. After he completed each assignment, he would discuss any problems or questions with a teacher and receive a new assignment.
The tedious assignments and the prospects of a steady income compelled Y-Bler to quit school after three years, and work at a Kmart distribution center, where he unloaded and stacked boxes during the day and, determined to reach his goal, studied at night. The job took its toll on Y-Bler, however, as he fatigued early in the workday and was often unable to keep pace. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, it was the first symptoms of a long hard fought battle with cancer.
Although Y-Bler frequently sought medical care for his fatigue and accompanying stomach pains, doctors repeatedly misdiagnosed his sickness as a viral infection, similar to the flu that he acquired in Southeast Asia. As his condition worsened, the family practitioner referred him to an oncologist in the fall of 1995. Although the oncologist suspected it, he was unable to confirm Y-Bler had cancer.
Y-Bler’s condition worsened, and when the Clarks were out of town one weekend he called Y-Pen Ayun and Louis Bing for help. Unaware that Y-Bler had been seeing an oncologist, they took him to an urgent care facility where the doctor immediately admitted Y-Bler to Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro, NC.
Over the next several months, Y~Bler underwent six different biopsies and several spinal taps. Tissue samples from the biopsies were sent to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia and a military laboratory in Maryland, but the test results were always inconclusive. In the fall of 1996, doctors then admitted Y-Bler to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, NC where, after his seventh biopsy, their suspicions were confirmed, and he was first officially diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma.
Y-Bler immediately began an aggressive regimen of Chemotherapy and Radiation. To complicate matters further, Y-Bler was dropped from the Clark’s insurance plan in January of 1997 and, from thereon, was dependent on Medicaid and the hospitals indigent patient program. Once aware of the situation, Dr. Brad Sherrill agreed to treat Y-Bler pro bono. Y-Bler spent the next several months in and out of the hospital and from then on, chose to live with Y-Pen Ayun, Greg and Debbie Dunn and briefly with Charlie and Sheri Crum.
Y-Bler continued to pursue an education, but his medical condition severely hindered his progress. Although there was a time in the summer of 1997 when doctors thought his cancer was in remission, it was raging again by the fall of 1997. Y-Bler underwent more aggressive treatment, with the Dunns, Y-Pen Ayun, and Louis Bing constantly at his side.
In addition to liberating his people, Y-Bler also aspired to one day become an American citizen. In December of 1997 US Congressman Howard Coble helped fulfill that aspiration when he visited Y-Bler at the hospital and presented him with his American Citizenship Certificate and a Congressional Recognition Certificate for his efforts fighting the NVA as a Montagnard Freedom Fighter. By all accounts, it was an emotional ceremony for all parties involved.
Perhaps Y-Bler's most remarkable attribute was his ability to always remain positive even in the worst of adversity. Anyone who visited him in the hospital can attest to the fact that no matter how much pain he was in, he always smiled when anyone came through the door. He was so happy that people cared about him and genuinely thankful and appreciative of even the smallest of gifts and favors, His positive attitude was almost contagious to those around him.
During his final days, Y-Bler spent time with Y-Pen Ayun, Greg and Debbie Dunn and Charlie and Sheri Crum, as well as many other close friends. Before he passed away, a friend read some Bible verses and many prayers were said. Y-Bler told everyone not to cry, that it was going to be OK because his friends who died in the jungle were there to greet him into heaven. Debbie Dunn told Y-Bler to do something that he had never done in his life --stop fighting-- and join them. He passed away on December 28, 1997 and was buried at Westminster Gardens in Greensboro, NC.
I’lI always remember Y-Bler as a soldier with the heart of a young boy who was ready to sacrifice himself to free his people. He never wanted a handout nor did he want anyone to have pity on him. He simply wanted to work hard and educate himself, in hopes of one day going hack to Vietnam and peacefully liberating his fellow Montagnards. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about him. He died tragically, and I can only hope that his dream does not endure the same fate.