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Polygamous upbringing influenced Utah Minuteman

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Cawley graduated from Granite High School in 1984 and enrolled at the University of Utah that fall while still working full time. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1991 and that year took a trip to Hanoi. Cawley and a group that included faculty, students and former soldiers who had fought in Vietnam spent 11 days in the country. The trip inspired Cawley to continue studying Vietnam.

In 1993, Cawley returned to Vietnam to work on a master’s thesis on post-1975 economics there. Cawley never finished that thesis, but he said he embraced everything about the Vietnamese culture, including attending birthday parties celebrating communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

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Mel Halbach, a documentary filmmaker who was with Cawley on the 1991 trip and later returned with him and became his roommate in 1994, remembers Ho Chi Minh being one of Cawley’s "heroes" back then. That began to change, Halbach said, when he and Cawley started teaching English in Vietnam.

The students were a mix of teenagers and adults, not all of whom supported the Communist government. As their English improved, Halbach said, they challenged Cawley’s political views supporting communism and complained to him about political corruption in the country.

In the spring of 1993, one of Cawley’s students was a woman in her late 20s from Saigon named Dzoung thi Thu Nguyet. Cawley asked her to stay after class one day and took her to an ice cream shop.

"The culture over there is to respect the teacher," a smiling Nguyet said when asked about accepting Cawley’s overture.

On Aug. 6, 1995, the couple married in a ceremony that was for the most part Vietnamese, though the bride and groom recited some Christian vows in front of the altar. Nguyet has since adopted the name Bonnie because it’s easier for English speakers to pronounce.

Cawley says his view of the Vietnamese government changed when his pregnant wife registered to give birth at an army hospital in Ho Chi Minh City in 1996 but Cawley was not allowed inside because he was an American. Bonnie Cawley delivered their son, Claude, at a civilian hospital. The couple’s second child, a daughter, was born last year.

Flag waving

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In 1999, Cawley moved his family to Utah and bought a housenear 300 E. 3900 South in South Salt Lake. The family lived next door to a subsidized apartment complex.

Cawley said he moved there because he wanted to live with hard-working people — of any race. When the Cawleys moved in, the neighborhood already had a lot of Latinos. The Latino population increased in the six years he lived there, Cawley said.

But Cawley’s Latino neighbors, ones he believed were undocumented, left a bad impression. At one point Bonnie Cawley, armed with a BB-gun that she pretended fired real bullets, chased away a group of Latino children who would climb over a wall into her backyard. Cawley’s car stereo was stolen, and his wife learned a motorist she struck with her car while driving in the neighborhood was an undocumented immigrant.

"I have to pay, but what happens if she hits me?" Bonnie Cawley said.

Meanwhile, Claude began attending Lincoln Elementary School in the Granite School District, where Cawley said he feels his son was ignored by teachers busy helping students for whom English was a second language.

What Cawley calls his most "transformative experience" happened in 2004 or 2005 during an assembly for second-graders he attended at Lincoln. The assembly had a theme about pride in your country, and Cawley says about 60 percent of the students were waving the Mexican flag.

But it was his son’s flag that really angered Cawley. Claude’s teacher gave him a Vietnamese flag, or as Cawley called it, a "North Vietnamese flag."

"I was fit to be tied," Cawley said. "I was so damn mad I was spitting fire."

Besides developing an unfavorable view of the Vietnamese government, Cawley said he raised his son to "be American." Cawley motioned to Claude to lower the flag, then confronted the teacher.

"What was so enraging to me was she didn’t even have a concept it was offensive," Cawley said.

The teacher, Cawley said, was trying to make the assembly as diverse as she could.

"I knew right then there was something wrong in the heart of America," Cawley said.

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