Hmong who fought in Vietnam unable to return home

Thursday, May 20, 2010

GREEN BAY — Vietnam War veterans from the U.S. often returned home to protests and little fanfare. Most Hmong soldiers could not return home at all.

The Hmong were drawn into the Vietnam conflict as part of the CIA's "secret war" to fight Communists in Laos. The Hmong are mostly farmers, living in Laos, which abuts Vietnam.

"At first, the Hmong didn't want to fight, President Kennedy directed the CIA to contact us," said Vaughn Vang of the Lao Hmong Human Rights Council in Green Bay.

The Hmong were recruited, in part, to block the Viet Cong from using the Ho Chi Mihn Trail to carry supplies, and Vang said they also protected radar installations and helped rescue American pilots. Because the Hmong sided with the U.S., many were captured and killed by the Laotian Communist government when the U.S. withdrew troops in the mid-1970s. Others escaped.

While American Vietnam vets will receive a "welcome home" at LZ Lambeau this weekend, Hmong soldiers say they can't return to their homeland unless it becomes a democracy, which they say isn't likely.

"Many were killed, women were raped, many tortured and left slowly to die," said Vang, who recalls running through the jungle for safety as a teen.

Hmong refugees spent time at camps in Thailand before coming to other countries, including the U.S., starting in the late 1970s.

Walee Vue of Green Bay was about 10 or 12 years old when he said he was recruited by U.S. soldiers to fight in the war. He still has a framed picture of himself as a tiny boy dressed in military gear, standing next to the tall U.S. pilot he said he saved.

His father and brother were killed, and he came very near. After the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, many Hmong were taken to re-education camps, which Vang described as torture camps.

"He was lucky because he was able to escape," Vang said, interpreting for Vue. "His family ran into the jungle until they were able to escape to Thailand."

Vue came to the U.S. in 1989 and has since been recognized as a war hero.

"I still have family hiding in the jungle of Laos," Vue said through Vang. "Because I was a captain, the Laotian government is hunting them. There are a total of about 3,000 to 4,000 still hiding. What can be Roger Vang joined the military at age 14 and served for about 15 years. He recalls that after Americans withdrew troops they told the Hmong not to fight anymore, but the Hmong weren't prepared to lose the country. Eventually they were forced to leave or go into hiding. He came to the U.S. in 1979.

"I miss the country, I miss the physical beauty of it," Roger Vang said through Vaughn Vang as an interpreter. "More than I would (a) beautiful girl."

Zablong Vang of Appleton flew with a CIA pilot eight hours a day during the war.

"I saw my family once a year," he said. "(The Americans) say, '(You) can't go to Laos.' We say, 'How long (until the war) should be done? (They said) 'We don't know yet.'

"(The) war was over, but we still fight. Communists (were) looking for us," he said. His family fled to Thailand and eventually came to the U.S.

Cher Xiong of Green Bay served as a battalion commander from 1964 to 1975. His family escaped to Thailand, and he came to the U.S. in 1978.

He carries scars from grenade explosions on his back and arms and legs.

Vaughn Vang said many refugees in Thailand assumed they would return to Laos.

"Most of them did not know they'd come to this country," he said. "They thought they'd go to Thailand for a little while and go back."

Just as many U.S. soldiers suffer long-term emotional issues because of the war, so do the Hmong.

"All the men and women had a lot of trauma," Vaughn Vang said. "(They) don't know what to do to help each other to cope."

For many refugees in the U.S., language was a big barrier, as was adjusting from the quiet way of life in Laos to Western culture.

"When I came here, (it was) just me," Vaughn Vang said. " I worked in a restaurant. The owner came from Italy. He told me, not just to work, but to learn. In this country, you need an education, he told me, 'I must go back to school.' I said, 'yes.' He said he would help.

"I told my social worker, 'You feed me for 10 years, and then I will feed myself for the rest of my life.'"

Today, Vaughn Vang works for the Green Bay School District.

The first Hmong to arrived often struggled to find work because of the a language barrier and because they mostly had been farmers in their native country.

Vaughn Vang said welfare reform passed in Wisconsin in the mid 1990s made it difficult for families to survive.

"Everyone run into problems," he said. "I told (the) state Assembly, you must take responsibility. We work(ed) for the U.S.

"Hmong are not lazy, they need a place to work … on farms or nonfarms. You have to do this for the Hmong. I think they take that seriously. Things got better."

Many Hmong hoped to become U.S. citizens, but couldn't pass the citizenship test because they lacked the English skills, Vaughn Vang said.

"Then the president and Congress passed a law, Hmong soldiers and vets (who) speak little English, they (are) allowed interpreters to translate, (they) allowed Hmong to do that," he said.

Children who came to the U.S. and those born here have assimilated, Vaughn Vang said.

"They know English, they do very well," he said. "Years ago (Hmong) didn't fit in, now they do."

While the men accept that the U.S. is now their families' home, some did express regret that they can't return home.

"I really wish I could go back to Laos to visit (my) country, but it would be hell now," Vaughn Vang said. "If Laos becomes a democracy, if that does stop, I'd like to go back.

"(I) dream a lot at night. I told my wife, 'Sometimes at night I sit down and wonder if I am in America.' Sometimes I daydream of fishing in Laos."

Added Zablong Vang, "I miss my house. I lost my country.

"But I can't go back or I die."


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