Hmong veterans are home again

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2007 - 10:56 PM

In St. Paul, a celebration honored Hmong veterans of the Iraq war, many of whom have relatives who fought on the U.S. side in Vietnam.

As a convoy truck driver in Iraq, 25-year-old Sgt. Mao Yang became accustomed to a heart-thumping level of danger in her daily life. "At first it was really intense because you never know what's going to happen. After a while, you get used to the intensity," she said Sunday.

Her National Guard unit returned from an 18-month tour in July, and she admits she's still adjusting to the relative peace back home in St. Paul. On Sunday, she and a couple dozen other Hmong veterans received a warm welcome home from more than 200 family members and supporters at the Hmong American Partnership building on St. Paul's East Side.

Some of the fathers and grandfathers in the audience have firsthand war experience gained when they fought along with legendary CIA-backed guerrilla commander Vang Pao in the Vietnam War.

The Vang-led forces saved American lives with attacks against Communist troops in the hill country of Laos, disrupting a vital North Vietnamese supply line.

When the war ended in 1975, Hmong clans fled their homeland. Many emigrated to the United States.

Yang said three of her uncles served with Vang. When she told her father she wanted to enlist, her parents were "concerned about her focus" and the nontraditional path she was choosing, she said. But, she added, "My dad wasn't surprised. He thought maybe it had something to do with my family."

A slide show that was part of Sunday afternoon's ceremony included a photo of a beaming Yang seated with fellow soldiers on a couch in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. She said the troops were given a couple of hours to tour the digs and called the time "a nice break from the usual."

Like Yang, Specialist Dua Xiong, 23, signed up for the National Guard to "see the world" and sock away money for higher education. Her dad also fought with Vang, but he was opposed to his daughter's decision, Xiong said. She became a mechanic -- a job she said she chose because it wasn't typical for women.

Her father has since changed his view of his tough daughter. "My dad is proud of me because I'm young and female" in a role more traditionally filled by Hmong men, she said with a smile.

The two were singled out in the ceremony and received enthusiastic hoots and applause from the crowd as they stood.

Among the others who served were Yang's 23-year-old brother, Specialist Toua Yang, and their cousin Pao Yang, also a specialist. Both followed her into the military as a way to save money for college after graduating in 2002 from Arlington High School in St. Paul. The men served as convoy escorts and lived near each other.

Being able to see each other and flip effortlessly between Hmong and English in conversation helped ease their time in the war zone. "After our missions, we would talk and comfort each other," Pao Yang said.

His late father also fought with Vang. Pao Yang is now enrolled in college and studying electrical engineering. Toua Yang said he is planning to enroll in college in the spring with an eye toward a career as a police officer.

Toua and Mao Yang say their parents were nervous about them being in the war. But, Toua Yang said, "It shows we can do something for the community. There's been a lot of negative publicity with the shootings," he said, referring to incidents involving hunters in Wisconsin.

Neal Thao, who organized the event, also served as an emcee. Speaking directly to the new veterans, he said, "Hmong parents worry so much we are going to lose our sons and daughters to the street, to gangs, and now you have shown the way to be leaders."

Some 60 Hmong enlistees are serving or have served in U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and former Gov. Al Quie, a Republican, spoke to the Hmong veterans about the significance of their service.

Many of the families had lost loved ones in Vietnam and struggled in the aftermath as refugees, McCollum said. "Yet your sons and daughters put on the uniform and again served our country," she said. "This is a very special thank-you that I offer the Hmong community."

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