Dozens of people gathered to recognize Anchorage’s Hmong veterans Friday afternoon, sharing food and dance and stories in Mountain View Lions Park on the second annual Hmong-American Veterans Memorial Day.
The event honors the Hmong people who fought under Gen. Vang Pao during the Laotian Civil War.
Recruited by the CIA to help battle the communist Pathet Lao in what became know as the “Secret War,” tens of thousands of Hmong were killed over the course of the fighting. When the war ended in 1975, the survivors became refugees, fleeing into the jungle. Some died; others spent years in Thai camps. Eventually, some made it to the United States, and today the country is home to more than a quarter million Hmong people.
Besides its own growing Hmong population, Alaska is home to some 22 veterans of the Secret War.
Steven Yang was recruited to fight when he was 12.
Living with his family in Laos at the time, Yang was scooped up alongside a dozen of his classmates, dropped off at military training for several months then whisked off to fight on the front lines. None of the classmates survived.
“I started thinking, ‘I may never come back home,'” Yang recalled. “‘I might never see my family again.'”
But he was one of the lucky ones, he said. He followed his commander and remembered to protect himself and stay low. Surrounded by fighting, day in and day out, he never knew when it might be his time to die. He came to accept it. And he survived.
He was reunited with nearly all his family again, years later in Chicago. They live in Anchorage now.
Every May 15, Yang thinks about his classmates and his second brother and all the others lost to the war.
“It’s most important to me, to remember,” he said.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent, another neighborhood leader continued his fight for military honors for Hmong veterans.
President of the Hmong Alaska Community, Inc. and a Mountain View resident, Pasert Lee spent May 15 in Washington, D.C. He joined a coalition of politicians and Hmong leaders advocating on behalf of the Hmong Veterans Service Recognition Act. If passed, the bill would let Hmong-American veterans of the Secret War be buried in national cemeteries.
That final honor is very important to America’s Hmong communities, Lee said. Back in Anchorage, Yang agreed.
“We are recognized for service during the Vietnam War,” he said. “We are soldiers.”