FORT CAMPBELL, Ky., June 6, 2017 — By taking leave in May instead of April so he could see his little sister graduate from high school, Army Spc. Jesse Thepouhthay missed out on one of his favorite holidays — New Year. Most Americans generally associate New Year’s celebrations with Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. However, Thepouhthay and his family celebrate Laotian New Year in April.

“It’s like this huge festival, and in Laos, April is the hottest month,” he said. “So that’s when everyone’s out and about you know playing in the water and [getting] in huge water balloon fights. Everyone is just wishing a happy New Year to everyone and wiping away everything bad you have ever did and starting fresh.”

The tradition is carried on by his family in his home town in Arkansas.

Food is an important part of the celebration, and missing out on spicy papaya salad this year was a bit of a disappointment, Thepouhthay said. There is also traditional dancing, where people wear clothes that he describes as having a royal look and traditional Laotian music accompanies the dancing. While Thepouhthay said he has only participated with the dance once, he takes part in the rest of the festivities whenever he can.

He joined the Army three years ago with the help of his brother-in-law, who was a recruiter at the time, and explained to him that he could transfer his skills to a civilian career if he ever decided to leave the Army.

Keep ‘Em Flying

After basic training and 28 weeks of advanced individual training, he arrived here to serve as an air traffic control equipment repairer with Foxtrot Company, 6th Battalion, 101st General Support Aviation Battalion.

“With air traffic control, … everything has to work,” Thepouhthay said. “So if something goes down, you know that somebody’s life could possibly be gone.” Things can go wrong any time of the day or night, he said, and no matter what time it is he must be ready to go and bring the piece of equipment back online as quickly as he can.

For the second generation Laotian immigrant, his job is not too stressful while he performs regular maintenance when the unit is in a garrison setting, but in the field everything changes. He said the unit can turn any relatively flat space into an airfield, and it is his responsibility to assist with ensuring the air traffic control equipment works when the troops first set it up. His ongoing missing is to then repair any faults that occur. Thepouhthay said being in the field doing his job is one of the best parts of being in the Army.

“We go out and we do our job and do it [well] and I hear nothing but great things from higher-ranking people like ‘Hey, you guys are always spot-on.’ and that’s just a really good feeling,” he said.

Seeking Better Opportunities

Thepouhthay has never been to Laos himself, and calls Fort Smith, Arkansas, home. He learned about Laos from his father, who told him there was not much opportunity there, so he decided to immigrate to America. At the time Thepouhthay’s father decided to make the journey he did not know English. After a six-month process, he made it to America and started working and going to school. According to Thepouhthay, it was not easy because, even in America, he only made $10 a week.

“My dad’s always influenced me to be humble, to be nice to everybody and work together,” Thepouhthay said. “Growing up with that mentality has helped me tremendously in the Army. I’ve met so many different people in the service and helping them and helping me is like you know just a big family and I truly appreciate it.”

His father completed school and worked at Sears as an automotive technician before starting his own business in 2001.

By trying to be like the example his father set, Thepouhthay has learned important lessons that have carried him through life.

“My dad, he never settles for less and he is always looking for the next thing in life and that’s something that I will always carry on.” he said. “You think you have it all, but you don’t. There is always the next step. You can always be better. He always tells me to be the No. 1, and you know that’s something I always strive for.”

His father is his role model, and somebody who Thepouhthay said is an embodiment of the American dream. Now, he said, his young cousins look up to him as a role model because of his military service.

“They see me in the Army and they say Hey what do I need to do to be like you?'” Thepouhthay said. “For me … it’s weird to see younger people ask me for advice. I give them the best advice I can probably give them.”