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Subject: Charles Weldon, U.S. Doctor in Laos 'Secret' War

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Date Posted: November 26, 2002 11:57:59 EDT

Charles Weldon, a country doctor from Louisiana who became a well-known figure in the "secret" U.S. war in Laos, has died in retirement in Thailand, his daughter said Tuesday.

Weldon died of prostate cancer on Friday in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, said his daughter, Rebecca Sithiwong. He was 82.

Weldon was a globe-trotting figure best known for his work in Laos, where he was chief medical officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development from 1963 to 1974.

He described his experiences in a memoir published in 1999, "Tragedy In Paradise: A Country Doctor At War In Laos."

Weldon was part of a huge--but at the time officially unacknowledged--effort by the United States to fight a Communist takeover of Laos by native Pathet Lao rebels and their allies from North Vietnam.

Instead of sending troops, Washington sent hundreds of advisers under the supervision of the Central Intelligence Embassy and the U.S. Embassy in the Laotian capital, Vientiane. The U.S. Air Force provided support for pilots who flew for Air America, a thinly disguised CIA front company.

The foot soldiers in the anti-communist efforts were U.S.-paid soldiers from Thailand and members of Laos' Hmong hill tribe minority, then better known as the Meo.

Inextricably tied to the war in Vietnam, Laos fell to the communists in 1975 after the fall of Saigon.

"Doc" Weldon was one of a handful of Americans who attained semi-legendary status in the war, working in arduous conditions at great personal risk. Most of his work involved attending to the Hmong people, who were beset by great poverty as well as the ravages of war and displacement.

King Savanna Vatthana of Laos honored Weldon in 1968 by naming him a Chevalier in the Order of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol.

Weldon was born in St. James, La., on March 7, 1920. Raised by an older sister in Texas, he attended Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, where he studied petroleum chemical engineering. He joined the Marine Corps during World War II and fought in the Pacific theater.

After the war, he attended medical school in New Orleans, graduating from Louisiana State University School of Medicine in 1951.

He served in private practice in rural Louisiana until 1960, when he went to work for the U.S. Department of the Interior as chief medical officer in Pago Pago, American Samoa.

He joined USAID three years later as the agency's chief public health officer and stayed until 1974, when he moved to Boston to earn a master's degree at the Harvard School of Public Health in 1974.

Weldon served as USAID's chief public health officer in Haiti until 1979, when he left for the private sector. His daughter said he worked for the U.S. construction giant Bechtel Corp. in Saudi Arabia and South Korea before retiring to northern Thailand about 15 years ago.

Weldon is survived by his second wife, Nipaporn, and their daughter Manasavorn, as well as three children from his first marriage: his daughter, Rebecca, an art curator in Chiang Rai; and sons Walter, an engineer, and Ray, a geology professor in Oregon.

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