The old Hmong soldier’s voice broke as he told of coming upon American pilots in the smoking wreckage of their plane or helping evacuate a chaotic CIA base as the dominoes were falling in Southeast Asia.
Xai Paul Vang, 65, of Cottage Grove, spoke in the hallway of the Minnesota State Office Building last week, evoking memories of the “Secret War” in his native country of Laos in the ’60s and ’70s.
And explaining why a patch of ground in the Minnesota State Capitol Mall means so much to him.
“Every year in the last seven years, he has come to the location where it is designated for the monument, to honor it,” said an interpreter as Vang spoke. Even if he dies before it is finished, Vang feels “his spirit will be there. That is designated for him and all the Hmong-Lao veterans.”
The past was very much in the present in the crush of legislative business a few feet away. The House Committee on Capital Investment heard a pitch for a long-planned memorial on the Mall to the Hmong and Lao veterans and their families, who have been part of the fabric of St. Paul and the Twin Cities since the wars ended in 1975.
“We’re here in America, the land of freedom, because of the sacrifices made by our elders,” Yia Michael Thao, the son of a soldier who fought on the U.S. side, told the committee.
The Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton are considering a proposal to spend $450,000, combined with another $150,000 to be raised privately, to build the memorial. This is the second go-round for the project, which once fell short of private fundraising goals.
This time Thao, who serves as finance chair for the project, said $130,000 has already been raised. It has been greenlighted by Gov. Mark Dayton and in an initial capital bill proposed by the House committee chair, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. It has moved through a committee in the Senate, where its champion is Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, also a Laotian-born son of a Hmong soldier.
The soldiers’ story links steamy Laotian jungles with icebound Twin Cities neighborhoods. The CIA secretly recruited hill-dwelling Hmong and lowland Lao to find fallen pilots and hold back North Vietnamese troops operating in Laos. When the communists took over and U.S. allies fled, St. Paul became a beacon for resettlement.
The Capitol Mall is already a sea of stone and bronze ghosts, including Christopher Columbus and Leif Erikson (each honored as “Discoverer of America”) and memorials to veterans of 20th century wars, women suffragists, fallen police officers and firefighters and Minnesota workers. A state tally lists 20 existing memorials and statues.
2015: 40th anniversary
The new project, to be located near an existing Vietnam War memorial, would be dominated by an 8- to 9-foot bronze plant known as the “vigorous sprout,” with petals bearing images of the war, the escape from Laos and resettlement. It also will include stone walks with traditional needlework designs, plantings of Minnesota grasses and the words “Sacrifices for Freedom” engraved in stone.
If approved this year, the monument could be built in 2015, the 40th anniversary of the end of the war.
Two other centers of Hmong and Lao immigration, Sheboygan, Wis., and Fresno, Calif., have erected memorials in public places, and the U.S. government placed a small plaque at Arlington National Cemetery. It appears this would be the first such memorial on the grounds of a state capitol.
As the new generations of Hmong-Americans get further away from the wartime trauma, ex-soldiers like Charles Vu, 67, of St. Paul, want to make sure they remember how they got here. Vu said he was based at the secret air base at Long Cheng — the same one Xia Paul Vang helped evacuate — and served from 1968-75. Like his brothers-in-arms, he has many stories to tell.
“We support the Hmong and Lao memorial for our children, so they know our history,” Vu said.