I Usually Don’t Get Choked Up Giving Talks, But Today Was Different….

I usually have no trouble in keeping emotions suppressed when I’m giving a talk or sharing a testimony, and rarely get choked up, but today was different. It wasn’t even a Church talk — it was a talk to a group of Hmong people and some local Wisconsin natives at a celebration of National Lao-Hmong Recognition Day held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, sponsored by the Lake Winnebago Area Mutual Aid Association. I was one of two keynote speakers for the event. I was asked to speak for an hour on the history of the Hmong people, the reasons for their coming to the US, and their tragic involvement in the Vietnam War, fighting for the US in a secret war in Laos that cost them everything. A native Hmong missionary, Elder Vue, was there as my guest to translate for me. The talk was going along well until I read the following passage from Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992, by Jane Hamilton-Merritt (Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 220-221):

Determined to keep the enemy short of supplies, [General] Vang Pao had units staked out along all supply routes, particularly along Route 7 and in the Ban Ban area. Vang Kai, who had joined the Hmong “special forces” a year earlier at age 16, and who would eventually gain the rank of lieutenant, was a member of one of these 100-man units. His unit operated near Lat Sen, not far from Ban Ban. Vang Kai knew it was his duty to rescue American pilots. The order, as he understood it, was to make any sacrifice to get them out. There was never any quibbling about this order. He and other Hmong considered it their duty to save Americans.

NVA [North Vietnamese Army] forces surrounded Vang Kai’s unit. Radios screeched with frightened men calling for “air.” American jets responded, swooping in on enemy positions with bombs and strafing runs. During one day of heavy fighting, Vang Kai noticed smoke coming from an American jet. “Two pilots parachuted. Everyone, including the enemy, could see them. As we watched, an urgent message came over our radio: ‘Get the American pilots before the Vietnamese!’ Quickly coordinates were given to our radio man. It was our turn to rescue Americans.

“Since there were so many Vietnamese in this area, we knew we would have to fight to get there. We knew we had to be fast to reach the Americans before the Vietnamese did. Our rescue party of 100 started to run. We ran! Fighting! Running! Fighting! More than an hour of running and fighting. We reached the area first, but the Vietnamese were chasing us. One American pilot was hurt from the waist down; the other was also wounded, but could walk. We could not secure the area for the rescue chopper to get in. There were too many Vietnamese shooting and closing in on us. They would kill us all. We must take the Americans and run. We took turns carrying the one who could not walk. He was big and heavy. We ran, carrying him, until the two men carrying him couldn’t run any more. Then two other Hmong would pick him up and run. We ran like this, carrying one wounded American and helping the other. Still the Vietnamese chased us, firing. For several hours, we ran and fought.

“Finally, we outran the Vietnamese and got to the Lat Sen position. We secured the airstrip long enough to call in a chopper to take out the wounded pilots. When we got to Lat Sen, there were only 40 men left in our rescue party. The rest were lost.”

Years later when I asked Lt. Vang Kai, who was then living in Montana as a refugee, about the extraordinary loss of Hmong life to save the two Americans, he explained: “When the Americans arrived in Laos, the Hmong respected them and called them ‘sir.’ We were friends. We had a ba-sii ceremony for every American who came to live and work with us. We did everything we could to help the Americans. When the Americans were in trouble, we Hmong made a path with our blood to save them.”

The idea of 60 Hmong soldiers giving their lives to rescue two American pilots really hit me. I choked up and had to pause for a few seconds in this talk. The Spock-like side of me beamed up to some other planet while I was left to struggle with a wave of emotion all by myself. But the Hmong people there understood. I saw several wiping away tears themselves. They knew the price that their people had paid for America.

Over 100 American pilots were rescued in such desperate operations, and thousands more American lives were saved by the courageous fighting of the Hmong irregulars and brave Hmong pilots in the heavily bombed hills of Laos – a war that was kept secret from the American public for many years. Over 100,000 Hmong people would die as a result of the US bringing them into the conflict with the promise that we would protect them and never leave them should the Communists turn on them for supporting us. It was a promise that was broken when America suddenly pulled out, leaving a broken people to fend for themselves against vengeful, genocidal maniacs equipped with tanks, planes, and chemical warfare agents like Soviet-made “yellow rain.” To this day, thousands of survivors languish in refugee camps in Thailand or struggle in the jungles of Laos, Thailand, or Vietnam. America owes a great debt of gratitude for their service to us, yet many Americans just think of them as unwelcome foreigners who are here to exploit our welfare system, utterly ignorant of the reasons behind their arrival in the US.

The plight of the Hmong people continues to choke me up sometimes. We have about 150 Hmong people on the LDS membership rolls in the Appleton area, and it was my privilege to serve them as their bishop for five years when they were still part of the Appleton Second Ward and then for a few more years in other capacities when they were put into their own branch. They’ve been through a lot, and the challenges have not gone away. Their first branch president here is now a Baptist minister who has drawn many away from the Church, if that’s any hint at the challenges they have faced. Painful, painful memories – but wonderful, wonderful people.

(Some basic information about the Hmong people is available on my page, “The Tragedy of the Hmong People.”)


Author: Jeff Lindsay

9 thoughts on “I Usually Don’t Get Choked Up Giving Talks, But Today Was Different….

  1. That is a very touching story. It is too bad that all the people in the Fox Valley do not have knowledge of the great sacrafice the Hmong made for us in the war.

    I notice that many Christian churches in the area have Hmong groups worshiping with them.

    It is too bad that more of them are not turning to the LDS church.

  2. Quite a lot of non-members are attending the Fox Cities Hmong Branch – about 20% of the congregation in the past couple of sacrament services were Hmong visitors, and there’s a baptism tomorrow at 4:30 PM. But while there is growth, there has been so much loss as well. Such a challenge.

  3. The Hmong are a vivid reminder of man’s inhumanity to man continuing in the latter half of the 20th Century.

    They are also a vivid reminder of why it was right for the United States to oppose communism.

    Somehow the apologists for communism seem to have forgotten them, plus the other 10’s of millions slaughtered by Joe Stalin and Mao Tse Dong. (Stalin’s estimates are 10 to 20 million of his own people killed, and Mao’s 20 to 30 million of his own people killed.)

    However, our government hasn’t seemed to learned the lessons of broken promises. We screwed the Kurds of Northern Iraq after the the first Gulf War by allowing Saddam to slaughter them. We promised them protection for their support in the first Gulf war, and then we abandoned them like we did the Hmong.

    Saddam did use biological weapons (WMD’s) against the Kurds. That was proven and reported in the media back in the early to mid 90’s. So why have the democrats and other lefties been consistently denying that Saddam had WMD’s?

    I’ve been consistently impressed by the humility and hard work exhibited by the many Asians that I have encountered. There must be a reason why Heavenly Father brought so many of them to this country.

  4. The American betrayal of the Hmong that you speak of is the rule rather than the except. Similar betrayals occurred in eastern Europe after World War Two, at the Bay of Pigs, when the Somoza regime fell in Nicaragua, and in Vietnam when we withdrew from that unconstitutional war. I have never understood how the American people can hold their head up in the light of these dishonorable acts. Most Americans are just ignorant of this history, but sometimes I wonder if it is not a willful ignorance. I was born in 1945, and since I became aware of these betrayals during my teen years I have been deeply troubled by this aspect of calling myself an American. In a country like ours, we are responsible for the behavior of our government. All too often that behavior brings shame upon us all.

  5. Our ward is blessed to be the Laotian ward in Sacramento. Although our two peoples have a big communication gap, there is warm feeling between us. I knew that these sweet people have faced horrible challenges, but I didn’t know the sacrifices that their people made for our soldiers.

  6. While I was a student at BYU I had two roommates who worked as missionaries with the Hmong and Laotian populations in California. At the time one of these roommates was putting together what I believe was the first English-Hmong dictionary.

    Jeff, thanks for sharing these stories. I always enjoy reading your blog posts.

  7. Thanks for the great comments. The grotesque slaughter of millions of people by Communism is something that we must not forget. Not should we blindly trust leaders whose actions have led to the betrayal of many peoples in the past. America should be a beacon of hope and freedom – and it can be, if we choose wise leaders.

  8. Most Americans are just ignorant of this history, but sometimes I wonder if it is not a willful ignorance. I was born in 1945, and since I became aware of these betrayals during my teen years I have been deeply troubled by this aspect of calling myself an American. In a country like ours, we are responsible for the behavior of our government. All too often that behavior brings shame upon us all.

    You are more right than you know about our responsibility for the behavior of our government. The government’s acts, more often than not, reflect the people’s will.

    As far as Vietnam is concerned, the national will turned strongly against the war after the Tet Offensive, and luminaries such as Walter Cronkite took that offensive to mean that we had lost and should cut and run. Despite the fact that, militarily, we (that is, the US military and the ARVN) beat the living crap out of the Viet Cong, destroying them as a viable military force, and seriously damaging the NVA forces in the South. Tet was a last gasp offensive (like the Bulge was to the Nazis in WW2), and if we had followed it up with an offensive of our own against the NVA forces in the South, or at least stayed in the game, the Republic of South Vietnam would still exist and the Hmong would have been safe.

    Instead, the fellow travelers of the communists in the US (particularly the media) convinced the US public that we had gone as far as we could and should get out. Accordingly, the US left the South with flowery promises of aid against the North, but when the South actually continued their program of invasion the country turned its collective back. I place much of the blame on the media figures who inflamed the citizens with false facts and extreme images incorrectly interpreted. To pick an image not at random, the image of a South Vietnamese policeman summarily executing an unarmed man by shooting him in the head during Tet. This image provoked outrage, but of course the media outlets who showed the image were careful not to state that the man was a Viet Cong operative who had just a few minutes before been witnessed murdering an entire family, in the middle of a chaotic battle situation. The only mistake in executing the terrorist was in executing him on camera. The journalists who promulgated the image did so specifically to discredit the US and RSVN. They succeeeded, and millions died as a result.

    The same liberal lamebrains are still at work, this time in the middle east. Pray they don’t succeed.

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