Thursday afternoon, Lor Lee sat at a picnic table in Mountain View Lions Park and recounted an old, hard story.
Speaking in Hmong through an interpreter, Lee said it all began in 1960 when he traveled to Thailand to study and met Gen. Vang Pao. He became a soldier, and said he spent two years guarding the Ho Chi Minh Trail between North and South Vietnam before he was recruited into the CIA’s Hmong Special Guerrilla Unit.
For years during the Laotian Civil War, he was an eye on the ground for forces in the sky. It was a deadly job: Lee said 3,000 men died at Bouam Long, and he was one of the few people left to report the casualties. He said he was injured in 1972 but returned to Bouam Long the following year. On May 15, 1975, Lee said the war was at an end but the soldiers left in the forest had no way of knowing. They waited in vain for their leaders to return.
While they waited, Lee said they stopped shooting at the communist soldiers but the soldiers didn’t stop shooting at them. So, Lee said they ran to Phou Bia — the highest peak in Laos — where they hid among the rocks and jungle.
Many people died; by bullets, hunger or the poisonous gas fired into the jungle. Lee’s wife and two children were among them. So were many of his relatives, friends and fellow members of the Hmong SGU.
“Everyone,” he said.
Thursday, those Hmong veterans were honored during an afternoon ceremony at the Mountain View park. The Alaska Legislature proclaimed May 15 as Hmong-American Veterans Memorial Day in 2013, and Lee said he felt thankful to be recognized. Still, he said the day is bittersweet.
It’s been decades since he trekked through the jungle and finally escaped into Thailand, and 13 years since he moved to Alaska. Now retired from a job at Providence Alaska Medical Center, he lives in Mountain View and said many of his relatives and friends also call Anchorage home. But the feeling he gets on May 15 doesn’t seem to fade.
“It’s so difficult,” he said.