Mourners salute beloved Hmong leader

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Thousands of mourners poured into downtown Fresno on Friday to remember Gen. Vang Pao, a U.S. ally in the Vietnam War and pillar in the American Hmong community.

Military veterans who served Vang in southeast Asia paraded through crowd-lined streets alongside family and friends dressed in traditional Hmong garb.

The procession, which led with Vang's casket in a horse-drawn carriage, marked the beginning of the six-day funeral.

Vang died at a Clovis hospital Jan. 6 at age 81.

"It felt as if the sun would never rise again ... as if we had lost ourselves," said Vang's son, Francois Chu Vang, addressing the almost entirely ethnic Hmong crowd gathered at the Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center for services Friday afternoon.

While tears welled in the eyes of many, the general's son urged Hmong Americans to continue pursuing his father's dream of strengthening their refugee community.

Vang led the Hmong to America from his native Laos -- where they were the ethnic minority -- after U.S. forces left Vietnam and the region fell to communism. Fresno became Vang's adopted home.

News that the general would not be buried with U.S. military elite at Arlington National Cemetery, which many local leaders had pushed for, dimmed Friday's pageantry.

Christina Her, a woman from Fresno who arched her neck to win views of the general's casket, said she wouldn't miss the chance to see and thank Vang one last time.

"He helped us get here," said Her, who fled Laos at 17 to avoid what she called the "killing of children" in her hometown. "I went back to my country this year, and I'm glad I came here."

Fou Phan drove from Sacramento to pay his respects. Fou, a veteran of the Lao Royal Army, recalled working with the general in the jungles of Laos to steer American B-52 bombers to North Vietnamese targets.

"He was a very intelligent leader," Fou said.

Friday's services included a speaking lineup of Lao royalty, onetime U.S. military leaders and state and local politicians. Many of Vang's children were in attendance.

White flower wreaths, portraits of the general and both Laotian and U.S. flags served as the backdrop.

In keeping with Hmong tradition, the services are scheduled to continue around the clock through Wednesday. The schedule includes more public condolences and private religious services.

Vang was recruited by the CIA in the 1960s to help fight communism in what has been dubbed the "secret war" in Laos.

"I knew what I needed to do was find Vang Pao," said former CIA agent Bill Lair, who spoke Friday about his mission in southeast Asia spearheading guerrilla operations during the Vietnam War. "The name of Vang Pao came up. They said he was a good fighter and a good person."

Lair said he ran arms to Vang and those under his command. The U.S.-backed force helped hold off the North Vietnamese threat, he said, at least for a time.

After coming to the United States, Vang remained a leader among Hmong Americans, becoming a staunch advocate for education and health care.

"He's the only one that represents our Hmong community here in the United States," said Kao Saecho, who traveled with friends and family from Sacramento for the services. "He knows our community. He knows the [American] politics."

Chad Kou Xiong came with his wife and seven kids from Stockton.

"He's our forefather," he said. "It's like watching a ceremony for a president."


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