As iconic as he was divisive, he was devoted to the people he led.
Gen. Vang Pao, a key U.S. ally during the Vietnam War who inspired both reverence and resentment in Minnesota's large Hmong community, died late Thursday afternoon in Clovis, Calif.
Vang, 81, died just before 5 p.m. at Clovis Community Medical Center, where he had been hospitalized since Dec. 26, said Charles Waters, a longtime friend and veterans advocate who worked with the general on causes involving Hmong veterans. He had been suffering from pneumonia and a heart problem.
News of Vang's death brought mourners flooding into the hospital, which was setting up space to accommodate them and preparing to move his body to a funeral home, Waters said.
"We expect to have a huge memorial service here at the Fresno fairgrounds," Waters said.
Especially among first-generation Hmong immigrants, Vang was revered as a leader who helped bring and settle the Hmong community into American life, particularly in Minnesota, California and Wisconsin, which have the nation's largest Hmong immigrant communities.
"We lost a great man," said 28-year-old Thai Lee, who was 3 years old when he and his family left Thailand in the mid-1980s. "My parents were directly affected by the war. So I grew up revering Gen. Vang Pao.
"I look to him as a father figure of the Hmong people in America, because it was his leadership that brought the majority of Hmong people to America."
Lee was in medical school in Michigan when he spoke with the general and had his picture taken with him.
"Knowing that I was planning to become a doctor and work with the Hmong community made him excited," Lee said. "For all the struggles that he and our parents went through ... he was glad to see that young Hmong people are reaching great success and coming back to the community."
Younger people who were born and raised in the United States, however, may be less interested in Vang and his legacy, Lee said.
"They may know of Gen. Vang Pao, but I think they've lost a lot of the history of the struggle our parents and grandparents had to go through. In a sense they probably have demystified Gen. Vang Pao's legacy. I think the respect is still there for what he did for the community, but he may not necessarily be the current voice for the community."
For Soliving K. Kong, who was 14 years old when he fought alongside Vang Pao, the general will long be remembered as a hero and leader of the Hmong community.
"He unified the Hmong people to fight alongside Americans during the Vietnam war," said Kong, president of Hmong 18 Council, based in St. Paul.
And in the United States, the general brought the Hmong people together and urged them to be good citizens, he said.
News about the general's death spread quickly through Minnesota's Hmong community.
"There's much sadness," said Kahoua Yang, president of Lao Family Community of Minnesota. "We lost a great leader."
A largely triumphant legacy
By all accounts, the former guerrilla leader fought heroically for the United States from his jungle redoubts in Laos during the so-called "Secret War" in the 1960s.
Backed by the CIA to fight the North Vietnamese throughout the Vietnam War, Vang later led his people from Thai refugee camps to new beginnings in the United States.
His reputation was deeply stained, however, when federal agents arrested him and 10 others in June 2007 for allegedly planning to buy about $10 million in illegal weapons for a violent, anti-Communist coup in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.
Agents obtained plans allegedly written by the group of defendants, including an outline for a 90-day coup that involved recruiting a mercenary force and obtaining weapons with a $28 million budget.
No evidence ever emerged that Vang helped develop or write the strategy. He did, however, review a sample of the kinds of weapons to be used, authorities said.
All charges were dropped in September 2009.
A galvanizing force
Vang's arrest and two-year fight against the charges galvanized Hmong-Americans who saw him as symbolizing the fight for public acknowledgment of the Hmong role in the war and the liberation of those still living in Laotian jungles. It also crystallized the suspicions of those in the community who thought he was autocratic and old-fashioned.
Still, his heroic standing never wavered among first-generation Hmong refugees in the United States. Days after his arrest, more than 500 Hmong Americans rallied in support of him at the State Capitol in St. Paul. And scores of his followers would demonstrate at the federal courthouse in Sacramento whenever his case had a hearing.
After the federal charges were dropped, Tom Heffelfinger, the former U.S. attorney in Minneapolis who first represented Vang after his arrest, was ecstatic, calling the grand jury's action a "fantastic decision, because there were no good facts to hold [Vang] accountable.''
The Associated Press and Star Tribune staff writer Pamela Miller contributed to this report. Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788