The covert wars of Vang Pao

V ang Pao rode shotgun, his CIA man in the rear seat.

Their single-engine plane, buffeted by strong crosswinds, aimed at a short dirt airstrip scratched into the face of a rocky northern Laotian mountain.

To Vang Pao, the Hmong warrior, there was little to worry about -- divine spirits controlled his fate.

The plane landed near a village of about 300 people, defended by 60 men with old flintlock rifles, recalled Vinton Lawrence, the CIA operative.

Pathet Lao Communists let loose almost immediately with gunfire and mortar. "Instead of cowering, Vang Pao was up, directing these poor people who hadn't even been trained," Lawrence said of that day in the early 1960s. "His reaction was extraordinary. He assumed he was not going to get shot. He just exuded bravery."

It seemed he'd always lived this way.

As a teenager, Vang Pao had fought the Japanese in World War II, and in the 1950s he fought under the French in their disastrous war against the North Vietnamese.

In the late 1950s, when the CIA's Bill Lair was looking for someone to lead a covert war in Laos, Vang Pao's name kept coming up. Here was a soldier's soldier, Lair thought. The first one into battle and the last one out. In 1961, he asked Vang Pao the question: Would he fight the Communists for the United States?

The man from the hills didn't hesitate: Give him weapons and he would fight. Lair had his man.

Today, 30 years after the war, Vang Pao's reputation as a warrior has been cast aside and his legacy is in doubt. There are those who claim that the Hmong people he defended in Laos he later exploited in the United States.

Vang Pao had first attracted the CIA's attention because of his courage and the way he understood the political structures of the tribal clans. He mixed pride, fear, patronage and inspirational talk to motivate villages to follow him. He married for politics as well as for love, taking wives from different clans to unify his forces.

He rose to the rank of general and became a revered and honored figure in the Hmong world and a person of influence in the United States, associating with civic leaders, military officials and members of Congress.

Because of Vang Pao, tens of thousands of Hmong were able to immigrate to the United States after the war. Today, more than 350,000 Hmong live in America, nearly 60,000 of them in Minnesota. This weekend, more than 20,000 Hmong from across the country are expected to attend the 25th annual Hmong soccer festival in St. Paul's Como Park. It's not known whether Vang Pao will attend.

In late 2003 and into 2004, a tumultuous political split occurred between the general and many of his former soldiers. The split was followed by violence -- a rowdy demonstration and unsolved shootings and fire-bombings in the St. Paul Hmong community, including the arson destruction of the home Vang Pao often stayed in.

Meanwhile, bitterness grows in the Hmong community over decades of aggressive fundraising by Neo Hom, the general's vast and secretive operation. Even one of Vang Pao's admirers in the CIA questions Neo Hom, saying it raises funds based on the dubious premise that Vang Pao will someday lead the Hmong back to Laos to overthrow the Communists.

Aging Hmong immigrants, many say, have given untold millions of dollars to that cause. But now their American-born children question what happened to the money their parents and grandparents gave.

Vang Pao declined to be interviewed for this series. His son Cha Vang denied that Hmong have been pressured to contribute to Neo Hom. He said that his father has made tremendous sacrifices to help his people. "It's hurt him, his blood, to have someone attack us," Cha Vang said. "He'd give himself up in the ultimate sacrifice."

Some of Vang Pao's operations have attracted the attention of state and federal investigators. The FBI is investigating possible bribery attempts surrounding a new Hmong funeral home in St. Paul -- once slated to be operated by the Vang Pao Foundation.

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