SACRAMENTO — He seems more fable than flesh and blood, a general who marched with serendipity at his side. Wartime comrades say he walked away from downed aircraft, defied bullets and dodged artillery shells. Once, the story goes, a barrage of bombs landed around him and not one exploded.
Even in defeat, Gen. Vang Pao of the Royal Lao Army consistently beat the odds. After the communists conquered his homeland in 1975, he fled with six wives and more than 20 children to the U.S., his old ally in the CIA-backed "secret war" in Laos. Trading combat fatigues for a business suit, he became the most recognizable leader of the Hmong in America, courted by congressmen, venerated by fellow immigrants. Elementary schools were named after him.
Now luck may be running out for this veteran survivor.
At 78, Vang Pao stands accused with 10 compatriots of plotting an armed overthrow of Laos from California's agrarian Central Valley.
An 18-page draft of the plan, dubbed Operation Popcorn, reads like the outline of an over-the-top spy novel: A group of aging men seeks to amass an arsenal of AK-47s, Stinger missiles and explosives, hire special-op mercenaries and reduce government buildings in the capital city, Vientiane, to rubble.
They've been branded as terrorists and charged with violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. Now they face trial here in the state capital and the possibility of life in prison.
Die-hard supporters in the refugee strongholds of Fresno and St. Paul, Minn., reacted with outrage to the arrests last June, particularly old-world Hmong who still hang his photo on their living room walls and have never felt at home in America.
Hadn't the general fought valiantly on behalf of the United States? Hadn't his Hmong troops rescued downed American pilots, battled communists along the Ho Chi Minh Trail?
To many, the arrest of Vang Pao was yet another betrayal by America. Though more than 100,000 Hmong resettled in the U.S., thousands of their kin remain hunkered in border refugee camps or trapped in highland jungles, still on the run from communist forces.
Chi Vang, 22, Vang Pao's youngest son, said his father had "no choice but to stand up for them."
It was these imperiled people Vang Pao sought to save, his supporters say, and it is these people who now will suffer or die, abandoned by America. The Hmong expected more from their old ally.
But the days of the domino theory and the fight against communism are long over, replaced by the war on terror and the Patriot Act and zero tolerance.
Even for faithful old allies bent on fighting a lost war.
Vang pao might have ended up just another impoverished Hmong kid in a land long torn by war.
But in the years after his birth in 1929 -- to a peasant family in a village near the Vietnamese border -- Vang Pao displayed a preternatural ambition not often seen among the Hmong's 18 bickering hill tribe clans still living as if in the feudal era.
Instead of becoming a Hmong farmer of sticky rice, he joined World War II resistance forces against the Japanese as a teenager, then was recruited by the French during the first Indochina War. Instead of falling into the faceless squadrons of the Royal Lao Army, he worked his way up the military ladder to become the army's highest-ranking Hmong.
"He became a great military leader and a remarkable politician, the first Hmong in 500 years to unite the clans," said Karl Polifka, a retired Air Force colonel who knew Vang Pao during the Vietnam War. "He's charismatic, forceful. His whole life was spent in warfare. And we helped create him."
In 1961, the CIA tapped Vang Pao, then an army major just turned 31, to command a clandestine military campaign against the communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. His guerrilla army eventually grew to more than 30,000 troops, mostly Hmong tribesmen from highland villages, and waged a gutsy campaign that tied down communist troops for a decade.
Mercurial and sometimes brutal, Vang Pao was known to order the execution of prisoners and insubordinate troops. He enlisted under duress so-called "carbine soldiers," some no taller than their rifles and as young as 12. He sloughed off accusations of being a wartime drug lord in charge of opium and heroin traffic.
Despite the controversies, some military strategists came to regard him as the finest general of the war.
He routinely accompanied the rank and file into battle, and his ability to skirt death was legendary.
Polifka recalled the time Vang Pao was about to leave a Laotian air base in a Huey helicopter but suddenly refused to go. He ordered the pilot to stop the engines. His reason was simple:
Buddha says not to fly in this.
Half an hour later the helicopter exploded, Polifka said. An assassin had tossed a grenade in the gas tank, its handle bound by electrical tape that slowly dissolved in the fuel.
Still, Vang Pao could not dodge defeat. In 1975, after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, the general had to be spirited out of his native land by the CIA.
Life in exile had begun.