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.”)