His body is riddled with bullet scars suffered from his many years of warfare. Having survived through multiple assassination attempts, airplane crashes and even a carpet bombing, many observers make the claim that this man may have been divinely indestructible.
But on January 6, 2011, General Vang Pao, beloved leader of the Hmong people, lost his final battle to pneumonia, and ultimately a heart finally expired.
After a ten-day stay at a Fresno area hospital, Nais Phoos Vaj Pov took his last breath and shared his last heart-beat with loved ones huddled closely by his bedside.
His death, much like the rest of his life, seemed to play out like a Hollywood script. For one thing, the timing of his death coincides with the 50th year anniversary of the famous first meeting between the General and Col. James “Bill” Lair, the CIA operative whose alliance with the General would seal the fate of the Hmong thereafter.
Also, to die just days after appearing one last time at his favorite public event, the Hmong International New Year in Fresno, would also seem to be a great coincidence suitable for a movie script.
Observers on that day, December 26, recall that only minutes after delivering his annual Hmong New Year blessing at the Fresno County Fair Grounds, the General was rushed to the hospital after family members noticed his health deteriorate before their eyes.
They say the General’s steps were a bit more timid and his breath a bit more short-winded that morning. He was in obvious pain all day. During his last public speech, his voice cracked with emotions as he seemed to know this would be his last opportunity to be in front of his people [this speech is transcribed on page 3].
“Immediately after we got into the van, the General asked us to send to his home in Southern California-a five hour drive,” recalled Ge Vang, a nephew who was with the General that day. “But we told him he would need to check into a nearby hospital. He never made it back home.”
Ten days later, including a short reprise where he sat conscious and communicable for a few more hours, doctors would say that the General’s frail 81-year-old heart had finally come to a stop.
Those who know him best, however, say that the General’s heart never stopped. On the contrary, they say that although the General’s body may have died, his heart and his spirit will live forever for the Hmong.
“The Moses” of the Hmong
Gen. Vang Pao will be known in history books as the charismatic military commander of the “Secret Army” who fought alongside the Americans in the Vietnam War. To the Hmong, however, the legacy of Gen. Vang Pao transcends far beyond his wartime heroics.
“Txiv” (or “Father”), as he is known by those closest to him, is revered as the “Moses of the Hmong.”
As the Biblical figure Moses lead the Hebrew out of slavery and into the Promised Land, Gen. Vang Pao is credited by many with leading his people out of the stone-ages and into the world scene.
Born in 1929 in Xieng Khouang Province, Laos, Vang Pao is one of twelve children born to Phutong Neng Chue Vang and Chong Thao. Like most Hmong at the time, the Vang family survived by subsistence farming and trading goods grown on their mountainous farmlands.
At this time in history, the Hmong were still called “Meo”-a derogatory term used widely by the majority of the outside world. Economically speaking, it is no exaggeration to say that the “Meo” in Laos were some of poorest people on earth.
“When I was 13-years-old,” explained the General during a taped interview. “I saw how we Hmong would come down from the mountains in our bare feet and get treated like some kind of wild animal by the storekeepers and merchants in the towns. ‘Meo, Meo, Meo’ they would taunt us, making me feel bad about our position in the world. That day, I made my commitment to love and improve the Hmong people and have given all my heart ever since.”
The next 20 years of his life would be devoted to raising his status in the French and Lao military. By the time he met with Col. Lair of the CIA in 1961, Vang Pao would have already established himself as one of the most respected military commanders in the country of Laos.
“We searched for this man for a long time,” recalled Col. Lair. “And when we finally did meet, he definitely lived up to his reputation as a good soldier and a good man.”
This meeting would forever change the fate of Vang Pao and subsequently the fate of the Hmong people. By agreeing to fight the Communist, Vang Pao would be at the helm of what would turn out to be the biggest clandestine operation the United States has ever undertaken.
Col. Lair remembers an impassioned man who expressed his fundamental dislike for the Communist.
“If you give us guns, we will fight them,” said the brash leader of the Hmong.
With American funding, Vang Pao’s “Secret Army”- in essence fighting as mercenaries of the American government–would bravely hold off the Communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese for the next 15 years.
Despite being embroiled with the war, Gen. Vang Pao was equally as passionate about developing the emergence of the Hmong people. He was instrumental in erecting school houses and establishing health clinics in remote Hmong villages in Laos.
Although often overlooked, Gen. Vang Pao may have sparked the revolution towards gender equity in the Hmong culture.
His insistence that female students be recruited to fill the Nurse Troop in essence opened the door for Hmong women to roles and status completely unimaginable at this time in the patriarchal male-dominated Hmong culture.
These pioneering young girls emerged from their traditional house-bound roles, paving the way for women’s rights which continues to evolve rabidly in the Hmong culture.
Historian Roger Warner compares the achievements of those young women in the Nurse Troop to the elite corps of Hmong airplane pilots who famously flew the T-28 fighter planes.
“By developing the Nurse Troop, Gen. Vang Pao helped to change the entire landscape of the Hmong culture,” proclaimed Warner. “And now look how far Hmong-American women have come.”
As he reached the latter years of his life, Gen. Vang Pao often mentioned that domestic issues in Hmong households was something he wished to resolve.
“The husband has to know how to respect the wife as he respects himself. And the wife has to be a good role model so that you can be a good example for your family and children,” Gen. Vang Pao declared at a conference in Wausau, WI in 2009.
Despite only having a third-grade education himself, Gen. Vang Pao cherished education for his people. Allocating money he received to fund the war, the General with Superintendent Moua Lia helped to establish the first ever teacher training program for Hmong students which helped to create a pool of qualified teachers who then were dispersed throughout the countryside.
This act would mark the first time in recorded history when Hmong families of all social classes would have open access to education.
“Gen. Vang Pao was both a military leader and a social development genius,” proclaimed Vang Xang, a long-time advisor to the General. “He would be in battle all day and then come to his office to overlook the large amounts of paperwork needed for his social programs until well past night time. No matter the stress he faced in fighting the Communist, he never lost the drive to improve his people.”
Despite his many wartime heroics, Gen. Vang Pao himself never spoke much of what he did in the war. On the contrary, whenever he had the opportunity to talk about the past, he often mentioned his education initiatives as the achievement he was most proud of.
“When I was born, there were only a small handful of Hmong in the entire country of Laos who knew how to read and write,” explained the General in previous interviews. “But now in America, we have hundreds of doctors, lawyers and professionals who are all very successful because of education. This is what I dreamed for the Hmong people when I was just a small boy, but because we now live in a rich country with opportunities and equality, it has gone beyond even my dreams.”
From an outsider’s view, Gen. Vang Pao’s ability to unite the Hmong people was among his biggest strengths.
In the 2008 documentary The Most Secret Place on Earth, the Long Cheng CIA case officer Vincent Lawrence remembered the General’s leadership qualities.
“He had a way of connecting to the common, utterly illiterate, opium-smoking Hmong, who lived way up in the mountains … he was an extraordinarily charismatic leader.”
Had the Americans won the Vietnam War, Roger Warner proclaims Vang Pao would have become the Prime Minister of Laos.
“No doubt in my mind,” said Warner, whose articles on the Vietnam War era have appeared in some of the country’s top publications. “Everybody respected Vang Pao, so much so that at one point, high level Americans were calling Vang Pao the best military commander in all of South East Asia. He would simply be known as Our Man in Laos.”
With accomplishments by other extraordinary individuals like Dr. Yang Dao who became the first Hmong to obtain a Ph.D in 1972, the Hmong were emerging in the world’s eyes.
Vang Xang recalls the sweeping changes in Laos and attributes those changes to the respect that Gen. Vang Pao had earned for the Hmong people.
“The attitude that Lao people had towards the Hmong changed nearly overnight. One day they couldn’t even look at us. The next day they respected us. All because of men like Gen. Vang Pao. When this man spoke, even Kings opened their ears.”
In America, some 35 years after most Hmong fled war-torn Laos, the General’s leadership and influence never seemed to disappear, especially for those who were from the war generation.
Nearly every Hmong household has one or more images of Gen. Vang Pao hanging on their walls, video tapes or books.
This is a man who lived a grueling lifestyle of appearing publicly all throughout the Hmong world up to the very last minute of his life. Whether it be a New Year Celebration in Fresno or a Domestic Violence Conference in Wausau, Wisconsin, Gen. Vang Pao would make an honest effort to attend these events when asked.
“My father is always happy to see people,” said Sisouk Vang, one of the General’s 18 sons.
And no matter where he went, the General was treated with VIP honors worthy of a head-of-state. Swarms of bodyguards would follow the General’s every move while nearly everybody in the room would respectfully stand up to receive him.
“For the Hmong people, he could almost be considered a religious leader, much like the Dalai Lama is for the Tibetans,” stated a Vang Pao follower. “For many of us, Gen. Vang Pao is like a prophet who promised he would bring the Hmong people out of the darkness, and his prophecy became true.”
When the General was arrested by U.S. federal agents in 2007 and charged with conspiring to overthrow the country of Laos, the long-lived relevancy of his leadership proved to carry over to the newer generations–as illustrated when thousands of Hmong of all ages spilled to the streets in protest.
“We felt betrayed because when our glorious leader was hauled off into a cell in chains, the ENTIRE community felt as though we were all stuck in a cell with him,” announced 29-year-old Pamela Xiong during a rally in St. Paul. “We no longer noticed the comfort of our own freedom and everyday we felt prison walls closing in on the sacrifice our people had made for this country.”
Although the General suffered physically from the hardship of being arrested, charged and incarcerated for over a month before bail was allowed, this new found passion being exuded by his people helped to lift his spirits.
In an interview conducted immediately after the Federal government dismissed the charges against him in 2009, the General’s eyes glowed with pride when he talked about the enthusiasm and love that Hmong youth displayed to him since his arrest.
“To see the young, the old, the men and the women out there uniting as one people to show their support, it means everything to me. My work is still not finished. The Hmong still need me.”
While it could be said that the impact Gen. Vang Pao had in Laos was based on his military might, the body of work since arriving in America proved that he was not only a soldier, but also a diplomat.
Among some of the more remarkable accomplishments Gen. Vang Pao contributed after coming to America was: the creation of Lao Family, the first non-profit organization dedicated to acclimating the Hmong into their new land;
He is also credited with creating the 18-Clan Council, a community run organization which acts as a council of elected clan leaders whose role is to regulate, facilitate and advocate for Hmong-American communities all through out the United States;
The General also sponsored and guided Dr. Pobzeb Vang to officially register the name “Hmong” into the United Nations registry in 1994, changing it from its former name at the UN, “Meo”;
And he was also instrumental in helping to pass the Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act of 2000, a landmark bill which allowed thousands of Hmong veterans to receive an English language waiver on the American Citizenship requirements, thus allowing them to vote and receive benefits-a factor that has helped to elect Hmong-Americans into key political offices since then.
“He never laid down to rest when it came to advocating for and improving the lives of the Hmong people,” said Vang Xang. “Even though he was in great pain and suffering, he insisted on giving his speech at the International Hmong New Year in Fresno. He shared his last heartbeat with his people.”
Vang Pao the Warrior
“General Vang was the biggest hero of the Vietnam War,” proclaimed former CIA chief William Colby.
“For 10 years, Vang Pao’s soldiers held the growing North Vietnamese forces to approximately the same battlelines they held in 1962. And significantly for Americans, the 70,000 North Vietnamese engaged in Laos were not available to add to the forces fighting Americans and South Vietnamese in South Vietnam.”
Historically speaking, Gen. Vang Pao was the direct contact between American intelligence and the “Secret War” in South East Asia. Despite its ‘secrecy’ this military operation would become so complex that by 1969, Long Cheng, the covert headquarters where the General resided, became the busiest airport in the world in terms of daily flights.
What made the General’s leadership so amazing to the world is how he was able to craft a super effective fighting force out of a people who were technologically behind by a hundred years or more.
“Sure we knew they had some fighting capabilities, with their homemade cross bows and flint rifles from the 1800s,” recalls Col. Bill Lair, the American CIA Operative who met Vang Pao in 1961. “But we were amazed at how quickly the Hmong would learn things. We got the first battalion ready to fight within 3 days of training.”
For the next 15 years, Gen. Vang Pao led a successful campaign to hold off the Communist forces, paying the price with heavy casualties and a depleted Hmong population. There are estimates that say nearly a third of the entire Hmong male population perished in the war.
By the time the Americans withdrew from South East Asia, the Hmong forces consisted of barely more than boys and wounded soldiers, recalls one Hmong veteran.
“We continued to fight because we still believed in the General. When he left Laos, it was like the world ended for us Hmong. We had no choice but to get out of this country.”
The reason why so many Hmong people believed in Vang Pao, the veterans say, is because Vang Pao was in the front lines with them all the way.
“The first soldier to wake up every single morning was Gen. Vang Pao,” recalls Vang Xang, who was head of ammunitions at the secret headquarters in Long Cheng. “He would pick up his load of ammunitions for that day, get into his personal airplane, and then come back with the day’s assessment before many of the other soldiers were awake.”
His ability to survive through near-death experiences brought him to near mythical levels. Eye witnesses say this man had the ability to dodge bullets and walk away from sure death situations.
Col. Bill Lair was with him on one such occasion in the jungles of Laos when a bullet ripped into the General’s chest area.
He stuck his index finger into the bullet hole, reached into the wound and proclaimed, “It’s OK, bullet no hit organs,” recalled Lair.
Hmong Today was able to view an older X-ray of Gen. Vang Pao to confirm numerous wounds throughout his body, including organs that were suspended to his body with wires and screws. His right arm contains metallic parts and chunks of his body are missing.
“This is a man walking on borrowed time,” quipped the provider of the X-ray-who wished to remain anonymous. “If you count the number of ailments and wounds he had, Gen. Vang Pao had more than nine lives.”
Starting his military career at the age of 13, Vang Pao worked as an interpreter for French commandos who were in Laos to organize Anti-Japanese resistance. Performing a number of important duties, Vang Pao’s abilities were recognized throughout the military ranks.
It was said of his raw military skills such as shooting and fighting that Vang Pao would rank with the best of them. In 1950, a young 21-year-old Vang Pao graduated 7th in his class from an elite French Police Academy in Laos.
In terms of communications, Vang Pao was considered to be a highly effective commander and extremely charismatic both with high ranking officials and those he led.
Although never formally trained, Vang Pao had some command in English, French and Vietnamese. He was a master, however, when speaking Hmong, Lao and Thai.
“All these years, I can’t remember one time when communication was an issue for me and the General,” commented Col. Lair. “We could both understand the same two languages of English and Thai, so that’s how we communicated.”
After the First Indochina War ended in 1954, Vang Pao would elevate to being commissioned as a major general in 1964, the first and only Hmong to ever hold that rank in the Royal Lao army.
“I was Commander of Military Region Two,” explained Gen. Vang Pao himself. “At any given time, I had 22,000 soldiers under my command and also about 450,000 civilians. In addition, I was in charge of the ten minority hill-tribes in Laos. My duties at that time were to stop North Vietnamese from supplying war materials to the Viet Cong…and also to rescue downed American pilots.”
The General hesitates for half-a-minute before continuing.
“The Hmong sacrificed the most in the war and were the ones who suffered the most.”
At the near end of the General’s life, he publicly reached out to the current Lao government-the Communist enemy who he battled all his life-to make amends.
His proposal to meet with current Lao officials in the middle of the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge was utterly rejected by the Communist Lao Government.
As reported in Thailand’s The Nation, Lao government spokesperson Khenthong Nuanthasing said bluntly, that if Vang Pao were to step foot in Laos, they would have to kill him based on the “death sentence that was handed down against him in absentia by the Lao People’s Court after the present regime took power in 1975.”
Commenting on Vang Pao’s death, Khenthong remarked that such news about the former Hmong general was not worthy of comment.
“He is an ordinary person, so we do not have any reaction.”
Despite the failed attempt to make amends, it was making the effort to make ammends that mattered to the General, explained Roger Warner.
“It’s a familiar sight throughout history where the old soldier reaches out to his old enemy to close that chapter for good,” Warner commented. “It was one last attempt to see his beloved homeland.”
With his passing, Gen. Vang Pao’s family is seeking special permission from the U.S. government to bury their father with full military honors at the Arlington National Cemetery.
With letters written by a number of Congressmen in support of such an honor, either the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of Veterans Affairs will need to make this decision. Having never officially fought in an American military branch, General Vang Pao’s legacy as one of America’s best friends is in the hands of the Obama administration.
It should be kept in mind that because of the involvement of the Hmong people, with this man as the leader, thousands of American lives were spared because “Hmong people took bullets for us.”
The acclaimed attorney John Keker may have stated it best when he was asked what motivated him to represent Gen. Vang Pao pro-bono (for free) in the federal conspiracy case: “This man is not only a hero to the Hmong. He is a hero to America as well.”