Blia Yang Vang cherishes the certificates given for his years of payments to Gen. Vang Paoâs organization. Blia Vang, who lives with his wife, Yaing Loir, in St. Paul, says the money guarantees heâll be a general in Laos, but the certificates donât specifically say that.
Every month for many years a man came knocking at Blia Yang Vang's door on St. Paul's East Side. And every month Blia Yang Vang handed the man at least $50 in cash. No matter how tight things got around the house, Blia Vang doesn't think he ever missed a payment.
Blia Vang never knew exactly where the money went, other than that it was earmarked for Neo Hom, the vast Hmong network in the United States headed in part by Gen. Vang Pao. Beyond that, all he knew was that Vang Pao needed the money, and so he gave it, no questions asked.
His loyalty to the general still runs deep. "If they want it, you have to give it to them," he said last month, speaking through a translator.
The payments, he says he was told, guaranteed him the rank of general in Laos once Neo Hom overthrows the Communist government and the Hmong return to their homeland.
Even though he thinks he is to be a top commander, Blia Vang can neither read nor write. He is now in his 60s and physically frail. He didn't know how many men he would command or where he would be assigned. But the man who collected the money gave him two official-looking certificates written in Lao. Blia Vang says the collector told him the certificates guarantee that he'll be a general someday. His photograph is glued to the bottom of each one, near an official stamp and the signature of Gen. Vang Pao himself.
"They issued you the certificate, so you have to be proud," he said.
Over the years, he said, one of his sons confronted him about the payments. "He asked me, 'Why not spend the money to buy food?' and I say nothing," Blia Vang said. He added that the collectors have stopped coming around and he no longer makes payments.
As a warrior in exile, Vang Pao has spent decades in the United States as a political evangelist asking for cash from thousands of refugees like Blia Yang Vang. According to authorities who have investigated the Neo Hom network, Vang Pao has allegedly threatened refugees financially and threatened to prevent them from ever returning home -- refugees such as Blia Vang, who are growing old in the United States far from their homes in Laos.
Vang Pao wouldn't be interviewed for this series. But his son Cha Vang denied that Hmong are pressured to contribute to Neo Hom.
"Nobody gives unless they have some personal interest," Cha Vang said. "Nobody is coerced. My father's not going around demanding money."
Blia Vang and Vang Pao shared the same dream of getting back to Laos.
As refugees, Blia Vang and others looked to their leader to get them back home. But when Vang Pao was flown out of Long Cheng in May 1975, his command structure was in shambles. Trusted aides were spread out across the world -- in Thailand, France, Australia and the United States.
His private life had changed dramatically, too. He arrived in the U.S. on July 5, 1975, and ended up living on a ranch outside Missoula, Mont., near where his CIA contact Jerry Daniels grew up.
U.S. law forced Vang Pao to divorce all but one of his many wives. In his early years in Montana, he sought solace in the Bitteroot and Sapphire mountains, hunting elk and deer alone. Other times, he took his family on camping trips into the rugged terrain, sometimes riding out to a hunt on the back seat of a Yamaha motorcycle driven by a family member. It was everyone's time to regroup and tell the old stories to the children.
But Vang Pao remained focused on the fate of his homeland. His next step was figuring out how to get back there.
The rise of Neo Hom
By the end of the 1970s, Vang Pao was ready to reassert his influence on Hmong politics. He lost the 400-acre Montana ranch because he didn't know how to farm in such a harsh climate. He and his family resettled in California, which already had a large Hmong population. Montana court records show that in 1986 he was more than $170,000 in debt.
Still, he held onto his dream that some day he would lead his people back to a free Laos and the lush mountains of their ancestors.