Former Hmong captain in Missoula to receive honors for war effort

Monday, March 29, 2010

The secret war of Laos is no secret anymore, and one of its soldiers will be formally thanked Saturday by the city of Missoula, the state of Montana and the United States.

Moua Chou, a former captain in Hmong Gen. Vang Pao's army, will receive the Vietnam Veterans National Medallion at a presentation at 1 p.m. at St. Anthony Catholic Church, 217 Tremont.

Guests of honor include Len Leibinger of the Montana Division of Veterans Affair in Missoula, Brig. Gen. Stanley Putnam of the Montana National Guard and Missoula Mayor John Engen.

Now 64, Chou was 15 when he joined the Special Guerrilla Unit in Vang Pao's army in 1961. He served through the fall of Laos to communist forces in 1975.

As President John F. Kennedy built up U.S. troop presence in Vietnam in the early 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency surreptitiously looked to the west for help to blunt North Vietnamese forces.

"They went to the Lao government, and it came up that the mountain Hmong peoples would be the best to fight," Chou said. At the time the Hmong, a hill tribe of northern Laos, had just one military official, Col. Vang Pao, "so the CIA flew by helicopter to find where he was at."

Vang Pao agreed to lend a hand, and the CIA and Air America soon began dropping weapons, military supplies and food to the Hmong, and provided air and advisory support. The Americans continued their aid until Laos fell in 1975 - more than two years after the official end of the Vietnam War.

Of a population of 400,000 Hmong, some 35,000 were killed in action, Chou said.

"Hmong peoples fought hard along the border to reduce heavy attacks on South Vietnam, they protected a ... blind bombing device close to the North Vietnamese border, and they saved a lot of downed U.S. pilots," he said.

Chou was a forward air guide, directing U.S. air strikes in Laos and nighttime truck movements along the borders of South Vietnam.

"The Hmong were doing interdiction missions and pilot rescue missions in Laos, and they were being paid a mere pittance to do that," said Leibinger. "A lot of U.S. pilots owe their lives to those folks, and that's what we're honoring."

The United States didn't officially acknowledge the Hmong contribution for nearly 20 years. In 1994, former CIA director William Colby paid tribute in Congress to the "heroism and effectiveness of the Hmong struggle."

The North Vietnamese devoted some 70,000 troops to Laos, Colby pointed out, troops that were not available to fight American and South Vietnamese soldiers in Vietnam.

The first government-recognized Lao-Hmong Recognition Day was held in Golden, Colo., on July 22, 1995, and July 22 was chosen as the annual date for subsequent ones.

"Veterans are allowed to wear their proper official uniform of Laos and medals as their own," Chou said. "The Lao-Hmong veterans have not received any benefit from the government, so in compensation the government agreed to hand out medals to the Lao-Hmong veterans (as) affirmation of their heroic acts."

Even now, 35 years after the fall, the struggle continues for Hmong soldiers still hiding out in Laos, noted Leibinger.

"The Pathet Lao regime in power will actually slaughter those folks coming out of the jungle today," he said. "It's unfortunate, but when we pulled out in '75 they were left holding the bag, with no way to get out or to escape the repercussions of what they did during the Vietnam War for the Americans."

Chou was one of the lucky ones. He and his family were airlifted by U.S. forces to Thailand on May 13, 1975, as the Pathet Lao closed in.

They became among the first Hmong resettled to western Montana the following March. They, Vang Pao and hundreds of others were aided in their new homes by Louise Daniels and her son, Jerry, a former Missoula smokejumper who worked for the CIA in Laos and Thailand.

Chou and his wife, Say Khang, have lived in Missoula ever since, raising six sons and a daughter. Their youngest is 16 and a student at Big Sky High, the school from which all his older siblings graduated.

A familiar face at Missoula's farmers markets, Chou worked at the Champion International and, later, Stimson Lumber mill in Bonner for 30 years before it closed in 2007.

He was invited to receive his medal at a national ceremony in Milwaukee, Wisc., last July but was unable to make it. The medal was sent to Missoula for an October ceremony, he said, but his wife underwent surgery and the award was postponed until Saturday.

Along with the medal, Chou will receive a citation signed by U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado.

It's in recognition of "outstanding performance of duty in action against enemy forces in (Chou's) native country of Laos," the citation reads in part. "He successfully executed primary missions for air and combat logistics support for the United States Military Forces to include the rescuing of American air personnel during battles in the theater of operations.

"It further commemorates all the Lao-Hmong Special Guerilla Units (SGU) during the Vietnam Conflict. ... I commend you for your bravery and your loyalty to the United States of America."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com

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