In December 2005 Rev. Gia Tou Lee said a prayer in front of family and friends to bid farewell to a groups of Hmong troops who awaited deployment to Iraq. He prayed for their strength of will, their safety, and their anticipated return home once they had completed their duties, whenever that would be. An uncertain amount of time and distance would lie between the troops and their loved ones. That winter day, Lee’s prayer was embedded in hope.
On Sunday, November 11th of this year, Veteran’s Day, Lee said a prayer once again. This time, he stood on a stage in front of nearly 300, and his voice that filled the large room of Hmong American Partnership, possessed a confidence that showed no trace of hesitation. This prayer was a declaration of hope fulfilled after nearly 2 years. Lee’s prayer opened the celebration to welcome back, with thankful and open arms, the many Hmong troops who were wished good luck in 2005. They were back and they were safe, as Lee had wished for them in his initial prayer.
The lights dimmed and familiar Hmong songs, which included the Sounders’ 1000 Miles, played as Sgt. Lia Yang shared a slide show of the Hmong troops in the Iraq. The slide show, which included shots of soldiers clad in camouflage uniform as well as solitary moments spent strumming the guitar, shed light on the life that the troops experienced while stationed in Iraq.
Neal Thao, father of Hmong soldier Dominic Thao, explained that he and others came together after their children’s deployment to “unite our parental effort.” As parents of the youngest generation of Hmong to serve, they wished for their children to excel in their careers, to gain great opportunities, and to achieve leadership.
That Sunday, a parental effort was evident in another way. A joint effort was made to rally and display as a community, gratitude, awe, and pride in the efforts and sacrifices made by the Hmong troops, who were first and foremost, sons and daughters of America. Forty-seven community sponsors and dignitaries, including Sen. Mee Moua, Rep. Cy Thao, Rep. Betty McCollum and newly elected St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter III, came together to support the event.
History was in the making both as Americans and Hmong. The young troops added to the legacy of Hmong on the battlefields, brave younger soldiers who put their lives on the line to fight for freedom. “Your sons and daughters, new to America, put on their uniforms and served us again,” commended U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum. When McCollum requested the honored troops as well as veterans to rise from their seats, one glance around the room proved that at that moment, a link in history was being created between the elders who could recount the Secret War via memory and their children who came years later but were being honored that day.
In the past, the Hmong served the U.S. as allies, this time, they served as citizens who honored their country. “To you men and women, I am awestruck. We are so fortunate for you. We are fortunate for your parents that they came to this country. We are one as Americans,” acknowledged former Gov. Al Quie who expressed his appreciation for the Hmong, both as service personnel and community members.
“People who have suffered bring something that people who haven’t don’t know,” Quie continued. “You cherish freedom and human rights, because of what you experience, not what you read. That’s what you’re bringing to us, a wonderful, wonderful strength of character…. Tell those stories to your children, but tell it to us too because we can learn from it too.”
Indeed the troops who were honored Sunday brought back to the states experiences that could open the doors to greater understanding and advancement. Not only did they voluntarily put their lives on the line to protect, they took on toil and hardship to return home, and guide. And yet many of these humble service personnel repeat to others what was said to State Sen. Mee Moua. The microphone in her hand, Moua tilted her head and glanced over at the 25+ troops seated to her left, “I know that you didn’t do it to be a hero,” she explained and paused as the thoughts of unknown danger and sacrifice passed through the minds of audience members, “Many of you said ‘I’m doing this ma’am, because it is my job.’”
One Hmong-American soldier has died in Iraq, Qixing Lee. He lost his life in battle last year.