Hmong men pray during a nightly vigil for Gen. Vang Pao in Fresno. After commanding… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Fresno — The evening shadows have to fall just right. And the grave shouldn't be on a slope.
In traditional Hmong culture, the burial site matters for eternity, to the living and the dead and the spirit world that connects them.
So the old Hmong men — once young soldiers in a CIA-backed "secret" war in the jungles of Laos — light candles for Gen. Vang Pao, their leader in that war, and hope that he will be allowed to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
They fought a war on behalf of the Americans and lost everything: their land, their way of life, their country and the lives of tens of thousands of their people. This is what is left to them: hoping for a grave site on hallowed American military ground.
The question of Vang Pao's final resting place has become a reckoning of one of the most shadowy chapters of the Vietnam era and a coda to a strange legal case. Because Vang Pao did not directly serve in the U.S. military, it will take a waiver from the federal government for the man former CIA Director William Colby once called "the biggest hero of the Vietnam War" to be buried at Arlington — the same government that three and a half years ago arrested Vang Pao as a terrorist.
Several lawmakers, led by Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno), have asked for the waiver to be granted. An answer is expected this week.
Until Vang Pao's arrest, many former Hmong soldiers were invisible. In Fresno, home to one of the largest Hmong communities, they stayed within their own enclaves, depending on their children and grandchildren — and on the man they called General — to navigate the outside world for them.
In Laos, they were clan and village leaders of the Hmong, an ethnic minority who lived high up in cloud-shrouded mountains. They were Vang Pao's loyal, ferocious soldiers who attacked the Ho Chi Minh trail, the main artery between North and South Vietnam. They directed American planes where to bomb and rescued pilots downed in Laos.
"But in America, they feel like nothing. They are poor refugees" said Paula Vang, a spokeswoman for a Hmong veterans group. "Still, they are the General's soldiers and they fought for America. This gives them identity."
In 2007, Vang Pao and 11 others were accused of trying to buy $10 million worth of AK-47s and Stinger missiles from an undercover federal agent in an alleged plan to overthrow the communist government of Laos. Courtroom sketches showed a 78-year-old Vang Pao, obviously ill, his ankles shackled together.
Shock waves moved through the Hmong community. In the Cold War years, Vang Pao had openly called on the U.S. to liberate Laos but now he was an elder statesmen, speaking at New Year's celebrations across the country, pleading with the U.N. to help Hmong still hiding and starving in Laotian jungles 35 years after the war. Had he really turned to plotting a violent coup?
Supporters gathered in Fresno and Sacramento. Old soldiers who had never cried in front of their families now wept openly. They rolled up their pant legs and pulled up their shirts to show bullet wounds and missing limbs. If the American government had arrested Vang Pao, did that mean their service to the country held no value?
Past and present collided. Many Hmong had flashbacks, dwelling on those they had seen die. America had betrayed the Hmong before, they said, when Saigon fell in 1975 and tens of thousands of Hmong rushed to Long Tien, the CIA headquarters in Laos, looking for American planes that never came to evacuate their allies. The Hmong were executed by communist troops, drowned crossing the Mekong River and killed by disease in squalid refugee camps.
Cha Vang, 61, a former soldier, found himself dwelling on the past and exploding over small things in the present. Before, he said, he was "never this kind of man."
"Before 2008 I was happy. I think there is no country on Earth like the United States. I always listened to the General. He led me from war to the middle class," said Cha Vang, who runs a janitorial business with his wife in Clovis. "After 2008 I have been confused and angry."
Lately, he has been reliving the same day over and over in his mind. It was July 1971 and he was 20 years old, the guy on the radio telling American pilots where to bomb. He only spoke "Army English": Alpha, Bravo, Charlie; Incoming. His orders were to rescue any downed American pilot, no matter how many Hmong casualties it took.
In the Plain of Jars region, Cha Vang called for planes to bomb enemy snipers. Two F-4 fighter planes came in. One was shot down. Cha Vang could see the pilot's parachute and enemy troops rushing toward him. He led his men to the pilot.
"It was the hardest, most dangerous 10 minutes of my life. So many bullets flying around you every minute, but we got the pilot out and to a helicopter. No one died. Sometimes 10 or 20 Hmong would die to save a pilot."