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home : community : community Thursday, August 17, 2017

7/11/2016 3:03:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
Hmong Veterans Memorial Unveiled On Capitol Lawn

By Sara Marie Moore

Colonel Mike Kao stands at attention as the color guard is presented at the unveiling of the Special Forces in Laos Memorial on the Capitol lawn June 11.
It was a historical moment for the Hmong community in Minnesota and around the world when the Special Forces in Laos Memorial was unveiled on the Capitol lawn June 11.

The memorial honors Hmong veterans who sided with the U.S. in the Secret War in Laos, from 1961 to 1975 during the Vietnam War. It acknowledges the love for freedom and democracy, which both the U.S. and the Hmong shared. But more than that, it stands as a lasting acknowledgement of Minnesota's welcome of the Hmong people.

"We gather here to commemorate the men and women who sacrificed their lives in the Secret War in Laos defending the principles of peace and democracy," said Cindy Vang, just before the unveiling of the memorial covered in red, white and blue cloth. "They will always be in our hearts for eternity." Three flower wreaths were presented in honor of veterans, citizens and the Hmong community in France and around the world. Community and government leaders unveiled the memorial.

The design of the statue, a bronze bamboo sprout with story cloth-like scenes depicting life in Laos and escape to a new land, represents the life the veterans gave to others through their sacrifices. Hmong needlework designs are in the pavement below the statue.

During the Secret War the U.S. CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) recruited Hmong to fight with the U.S. against the spread of communism in Laos, since Laos was a neutral country at the time and the U.S. could not send troops into Laos.

Wa Chang Vang, son of General Vang Pao who led the Hmong Army during the Secret War, addressed the crowd gathered at the unveiling.

"We would like to thank the U.S. government for all their support during that war," said Vang. "Without the U.S., Laos would have fell to communism long before 1975." Vang also remembered the Hmong lost at the hands of Marxist and communist leaders after the war ended. Hmong tried to escape across the border to Thailand from Laos because they were being attacked, but that was also dangerous. "Many thousands of Hmong died escaping and drowned in the Mekong River," said Vang. Yet he is grateful to the U.S. for taking in those who made it.

"Thank you to the U.S. government for bringing us to this country," said Vang. "We came as political refugees."

Lieutenant Charles Vu, who served in a special guerilla unit in the Secret War from 1968 to 1975, was also the chair of the Hmong/Lao Veterans Statue Committee who brought the memorial together.

"This memorial honors the bravery and sacrifice of the Hmong people in the support of Americans and to make sure they are not forgotten," said Vu. "Thank you for this heartfelt tribute."

Yia Michael Thao, also on the board of the statue committee, thanked the many donors to the project - 1,039 individuals and businesses donated $210,000 to the memorial. Funding was also provided through state legislation.

The idea for the project began almost two decades ago. It was pushed forward by Senator Mee Moua and Representative Cy Thao. In 2007, the site was dedicated. The design was developed in 2010. In 2013, major fundraising began. A bill sponsored by Senator Foung Hawj was passed in 2014 and provided additional funding of $450,000. In May of 2016, the groundbreaking was held.

Senator Hawj's father was a military diplomat in the Secret War. Hawj remembers escaping across the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand after Laos fell to communism. After coming to the U.S. Hawj learned that Vietnam Veterans had not been respected by the larger population of Americans at the time.

Perhaps that is why it took so long to honor the veterans of the Secret War next door in Laos.

"35,000 Hmong and Lao gave their lives in a war far away so more young American men and women would not have to go there," said Hawj. "No one knew who you were and how much you have sacrificed."

"Half a century has passed," said Hawj. "There are so few of you left with us. We owe our lives and freedom to you. This memorial celebrating your sacrifice should have happened several years ago. However, today the memorial is right in front of us. There is no better day than now to raise your head in honor."

"Today is the one of the greatest days for Hmong and Lao Americans and the diaspora," said Hawj. "We will remember the barefoot young Hmong coming down from the highlands to be trained as parachuters, radio operators and nurses. We will remember all the Laotians who lost their lives saving Americans. We will remember General Vang Pao."

"Today Minnesota pays tribute to you," said Hawj. "Your legacy lives on with this memorial. May your children work hard and thrive in this land we now call home."

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who has been very supportive of the Hmong community in St. Paul, which is the largest in the U.S., spoke about how grateful he is to the Hmong.

"Let us have no doubt the Hmong people have been integrated," said Coleman. "But let us never forget where this journey began. Let us not forget the sacrifices of the veterans who gave their lives on behalf of freedom and U.S. soldiers."

"We thank you for your service and your defense of freedom," said Coleman, addressing the large crowd of veterans and Hmong community leaders. "But most of all we thank you for being woven into the fabric of St. Paul and Minnesota."

Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith echoed Coleman's sentiments on behalf of herself and Governor Mark Dayton.

"You saved American lives and we are so grateful for your service and sacrifices," said Smith. "Amazingly, miraculously, you found your way to Minnesota, and we are so glad you did." The Hmong population in Minnesota is now 80,000.

Smith delivered a proclamation from Governor Dayton naming the day Lao Veterans Memorial Inauguration Day.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar told the crowd about an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act she and others senators presented this week, to allow Hmong and Lao veterans to be buried in national cemeteries. The Hmong community was saddened when General Vang Pao was not allowed to be buried in Arlington Cemetery when he passed away in 2011.

"These are our true veterans and they must be honored as heroes," said Klobuchar. "We relied on these soldiers. There is no difference between the work they did and we did. We honor you, we salute you, and we promise we will never forget you."

Young qeej performers and traditional dancers celebrated the memorial with colorful dancing, showing just how strong the Hmong community's history and culture has stayed since the first Hmong refugees arrived in the U.S. over 40 years ago.

All photos by Sara Marie Moore




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