Nyia Tou Lee couldn't help looking around the hangar. A parked warplane suggested parts of his “other” life.
That was a life when he prowled the jungles of Laos to find and rescue downed American pilots.
Today, he is an American citizen. Mr. Lee and his cousin, Say Yang Lee, were among 14 sworn in at naturalization ceremonies yesterday.
So were a husband and wife, born in India and now college educators in Toledo. So too was a Taiwanese missionary who crossed half the world to swear allegiance to the United States.
The ceremony was at the Ohio Air National Guard base in honor of Armed Services Week. Jet fighter planes stood outside the open hangar door.
Nyia Lee nodded at the planes. He is 61 and has been in the United States since 1980 when he and his family fled Laos.
Before that, in the Vietnam conflict, he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. His mission: find American pilots whose planes had been shot down.
“When [an] American fell into Laos, I helped them back to American headquarters,” Nyia Lee said. “I remember two pilots who fell in the jungle. They were hurt, from falling through the trees, but they could walk.
“I found them. I guided them back. When a helicopter picked them up, the American pilot gave me his .22 pistol. I still have it.”
Nyia Lee, wife Shoua Vang Lee, and five children came to Toledo. He works in the converter control department of Buckeye CableSystem.
Another child was born here and a son, University of Toledo student Ying Lee, 22, accompanied his father yesterday. “I'm very proud of my dad,” he said.
“And I am very happy that now I am an American,” Nyia Lee said. “I have no chance to go back to Laos. They're looking for people who worked for the CIA. They would kill me.”
His cousin, Say Yang Lee, sat next to Nyia Lee as Lucas County Common Pleas Judge J. Ronald Bowman administered the oath. Say Lee, 59, came to the U.S. in 1979, with wife Khouakha and six children. Three more were born here, he said.
He recounted a difficult trail out of Laos. “We walked 20 days through jungle in Laos and Thailand,” Yang Lee, who works in housekeeping at UT, said.
In a touch of irony, Mei Lan Thallman, who came to the U.S. from her native Taiwan, became a citizen but her husband, Kirt, could not be there. He is in Taiwan.
Mrs. Thallman, 30, had plenty of family support from Mr. Thallman's parents, Carolyn and Ken, and assorted others from Bascom, Ohio.
Mei Lan came alone to America at age 13, she said, from the city of Taipei. At Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky., she met her husband-to-be, and they attended Asbury Seminary together.
They are missionaries in her former homeland. Mr. Thallman had to remain to tend his pastorate at House of Praise, their interdenominational church.
U.S. District Judge James Carr, who officiated, told the new citizens that the ceremony itself was “at the heart of what it means to be an American.”
Dr. Subba Rao, 63, is no stranger to American history. He recalled studying the American Revolution in school in Bangalore, India.
“Yes, when I was a child. So, I wanted to see this place,” said Dr. Rao, who teaches business at UT.
His wife, Manorama Rao, 56, an assistant professor in pediatrics at Medical College of Ohio, took the citizenship oath next to him.
The Raos have been in the U.S. since 1986.
New citizens and their country of origin: Lina Toufic Belmona (Lebanon), Say Yang Lee (Laos), Nyia Tou Lee (Laos), Oralia Lerma (Mexico), Salvador Ornelas (Mexico), Dharmisthaben Girishbhai Patel (India), Ambrocio R. Pedraza (Mexico), Manorama Rao (India), Subba Subbanarasimhiah Rao (India), Jorge Chavez Ricardo (Mexico), Guadalupe Rios (Mexico), Mei Lan Tallman (Taiwan), Boun Vilaisack (Laos), and Ayman Yaacoub Youssef (Lebanon).