When I was a Green Beret, one of my duties was to recruit, equip, train and lead Indo-Burmese tribal men in guerrilla war against the Communists in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
These indigenous mountain people, because of the remoteness of their environment, had a cultural history that was unaffected by any of the world's great traditions, religions or teachings. Their origins are not well documented but it is believed they migrated from the early races of India and Southern China to establish themselves throughout the highlands and mountains of the Indo-China peninsula.
Within the country of South Vietnam there were approximately thirty-three different tribes distinguished by linguistic factors. These tribes did not exist as separate groups living in distinct settings. The tribes themselves consisted of many different size villages of varying populations spread over large definite areas.
Their population, at one time estimated to be just under a million, composed only a small percentage of South Vietnam's total population but they were the primary inhabitants of about fifty percent of South Vietnam's land area. They lived in the more remote highlands and mountainous areas with rain forests and dense jungles dominating their environment. Because the Communists were forcing them into service, stealing their crops and using their land for insurgency operations, these sturdy little people, being quite friendly and trustworthy, volunteered to fight along side the men of the U.S. Army Special Forces.
I was twenty years old, a sergeant with little combat experience, standing quietly before a group of eight combat hardened tribal warriors, the men I was supposed to lead, who were presently laughing so hard some of them were rolling on the ground holding their sides while tears rolled down their brown skin cheeks. My first day on the job and already they have broken into total laughing hysteria several times as I attempted to train them in map reading. It seemed to me that when my name was spoken by my interpreter the laughter begins. I had no idea what was going on between them.
I wanted to say "what's so damn funny?" but I patiently and quietly sat on the green sand bags of one of the camp's perimeter bunkers and waited for the laughing to subside. Having read my government manual on the tribes and their culture and customs I realized I am the foreigner, the intruder, the guest and I must not lay my immediate judgments, needs and authority on these men whom in the near future my life would certainly depend on...
After several minutes of this comical scene, my interpreter Gai, trying to contain his laughter, stands close to me and places his hand on my forearm.
"Oh, sergeant, sergeant. Not to worry." His smile reveals his filed down front teeth, a social custom of some tribes. He speaks softly, "You see sergeant, it is your name that makes us so joyful. Forgive us please and I will tell you a story." He turns and yells at the other tribal men to be quiet.
"You must realize that this earth is inhabited by many mischievous and evil spirits. Good spirits too but these are of no consequence. The evil spirits are constantly making plans to invade and disrupt our lives. They bring misfortune, disease and death. It is important to protect ourselves. When children are born they are most vulnerable. To protect them from these evil spirits we give our babies such names as ‘dog,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘buffalo dung,’ or the names of the sex organs."
Gai turns to the other men and says something to them. This elicits more giggles. They jostle and poke at one another like kids on a playground hiding a secret. Gai continues.
"Excuse me again Sergeant Burr-kai." This time I think I hear what sounds like my name. It brings a riot of uncontrollable laughter from all the warriors, Gai included. Again I wait, amused myself and curious as to why my 'name' makes the men riotously laugh.
When the French Army previously occupied Vietnam they too worked with these highland tribal people and bestowed upon them a name that was to signify any one or all of the many existing tribes. The French named them ‘Montagnard’ (mohn'-tahn-yar), literally meaning ‘guardian of the mountain.’ These ‘Montagnards’ now worked with the Green Berets and we affectionately refer to them as ‘The Yards.’
The laughter is subsiding and Gai and the rest of the Yards again bring their attention back to me.
"Oh, Sergeant Burr-kai. Forgive us again but you see the name is important. No self respecting evil spirit would ever inhabit someone with the name like ‘buffalo dung’. But your name, Burkins is very close to a Montagnard word, ‘Burr-kai.’ Not every child is named after something awful or gross. Some children, because they are born into a wealthy or important family get names that are powerful. Like ‘elephant’ or ‘tiger’. Evil spirits are afraid of those so powerfully named. Your name ‘Burr-kai’ is powerful. It means ‘Lizard’. So we will call you ‘Burr-kai’ because it has power and protects you from bad spirits". More giggles and stifled laughter infect the Yards.
I am in no position to refuse so I accept the ‘honor’ they have hysterically seen fit to award me. If my birth name of Burkins were pronounced with a long "i" it does sound something like ‘Burr-kai.’ Besides, if the name contains power that is something I want while in this war. Although deeper down I think all the laughter reveals a lizard as something comically gross. Either way, I trust the evil spirits will leave me alone.
As told by Lee Burkins