From left, Pang Chong Thao, Cheur Chai Vang, Peter Vang and Nao Blong Vang stand in front of the Lao Veterans of America office in Southeast Fresno. Photo by Donald Promnitz
Two times, Lt. Cheur Chai Vang was captured by the enemy, and two times, he escaped.
First, he was one of only a few soldiers to survive an attack by the North Vietnamese Army, when the base he was on in Laos was overrun. Bound together with his fellow men, he managed to undo his captives’ knots and get away by rolling down a steep hill. The next day, he was captured again.
In 1970 Cheur Chai would spend more than a week as a prisoner as the Americans and their Hmong allies fought the North Vietnamese and communist Pathet Lao forces in a place called the Plain of Jars. After nine days and nine nights of travel, he knew he had no choice but to run, or he’d likely never be seen or heard from again.
“I’d either be killed or either be free,” Cheur Chai said. “If I’m shot to death, I should be buried in this place. This is a nice place. The jungle had a big tree there like an umbrella that covered this place, so our culture considered that place a sacred place — a good place to rest.”
With his mind made up, Cheur Chai chewed through his bonds and ran barefoot through the tall grass, escaping his captors for good.
Cheur Chai fought in the interest of the United States, but he can’t seek treatment at a Veterans Affairs center. And while many of his compatriots are now able to receive funeral benefits from the VA and the right to be buried in military cemeteries, Cheur Chai is still ineligible due to a technicality. As president for Lao Veterans of America, Inc. in Fresno, Cheur Chai and his comrades are now fighting to change that.
The Secret War
During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited and trained the Hmong and other Lao peoples to fight against the North Vietnamese Army on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a supply route that ran through Laos and into South Vietnam to supply the Viet Cong.
Commanded by Maj. Gen. Vang Pao and named the Special Guerilla Unit (SGU), the soldiers were tasked with disrupting operations on the trail and rescuing downed American airmen. Since Laos was a neutral country, the conflict became known as the “Secret War,” and the SGU’s casualties included approximately 35,000 killed and 15,000 missing.
Capt. Nao Blong Vang, vice president for Lao Veterans of America, entered this conflict in 1963 when he was about 14 years old. A spy for the SGU, Nao Blong explained, with the help of interpreter Peter Vang, that as far as the Hmong were concerned, North Vietnam had brought the war to their doorsteps and — seeing the Americans as friends and a way to help stop the threat — they answered the call.
“The communist system was very bad and forced people to do things that they didn’t want to do,” Nao Blong said. “And we were willing to help Gen. Vang Pao and fought side-by-side with the Americans.”
The fighting not only affected the Hmong guerillas, but also their families. Peter, who serves as the executive director of Lao Veterans of America, still remembers the deafening squeal of enemy rockets flying over his house towards the American base at Long Cheng where the CIA was headquartered.
“Customers who would just walk in the street, they would rush to a house and we all would go to our bunker and stay for a couple hours,” Peter said. “And when it stopped, we would get out and have a normal life.”
On another occasion, American jets did a bombing run on one of these rocket installations. The airstrike was deemed a success for the enemy soldiers it eliminated, but it also resulted in several Hmong killed and the destruction of Peter’s house.
When the war ended in the communist’s favor in 1975, the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao launched a campaign of revenge. In order to escape genocide, they had no choice but to escape through the hills and jungles, and cross the Mekong River into Thailand — but it was a dangerous journey. The Hmong estimate that whether through ambush, disease, hunger or drowning, roughly 100,000 of their people died.
Cheur Chai’s wife and two children were among those who were killed. They’d made it most of the way, but as he went to get help, the enemy ambushed them, and they were gunned down on the bank of the river. Even after starting a new family, the shots still echo.
“The thing inside my mind, in my body, it never ran away,” he said. “And even though I tried to clean it like clothes, like a blanket, whatever, it’s not easy. It’s very, very hard — very tough — it’s like a super glue in my mind.”
A dying breed
When the Hmong first arrived in the United States, there were approximately 16,000 veterans among them, but today that number sits at an estimated 6,000 across the country. Lao Veterans of America estimates that they are losing four to five of these survivors per month. Gen. Pao died in Clovis in 2011. More recently, former organization president Maj. Richard Xiong passed away on March 11.
Last year, President Trump signed a bill drafted by Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to allow burial benefits and internment in military cemeteries. However, due to the wording of the bill, it only covers those Lao veterans that became citizens after the passing of the Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act of 2000. Nao Blong, who became a U.S. citizen in 2004, is covered and can expect burial benefits from the VA after his passing. However, Cheur Chai, who became a citizen in 1989, is not.
It’s been a point of concern for Peter. His father is 93 years old, and his time in the war has left him with two missing fingers and shrapnel that’s still in his side.
“It’s very hard for me to explain to my dad, who doesn’t speak English, or many veterans out there [who] say: ‘Well, when they came, they were our friends, they were our allies, they were the biggest friend, the most loyal friend that we had and we were willing to help them without question,” Peter said.
One step at a time
According to Peter, getting the technicality fixed is the next big step in their operation. In time, Nao Blong explained that they also hope to gain access to the VA clinics and hospitals, so the aging population of Lao soldiers can receive the same treatment as their peers in the U.S. Military.
“One of the key plays for our agency is we work very hard — we advocate very hard that at least our veterans receive those health benefits in case they are not well, they’d be able to receive some kind of service from the VA hospital or the clinic,” Nao Blong said.
The Secret War veterans hope in time to be honored and remembered by the citizens of their new homeland, but as time passes and their numbers dwindle, Cheur Chai, Nao Blong and others face the pressure of helping their fellow soldiers — while there are still soldiers left to honor.