By ALLIE SHAH. For Mai Vang, the pain and shock she felt Friday after learning that the Hmong leader she called “grandfather” was dead were too much to handle at work.
She left to join the many tearful mourners stopping at the Lao Family Community of Minnesota offices in St. Paul — a social service agency that wouldn’t exist if not for the late Gen. Vang Pao.
“Hang in there,” fellow mourner Noah Vang whispered, giving her a hug.
On Friday evening, the Lao Family office held a memorial service that drew about 200 people. The 81-year-old Hmong general, who fought with Americans during the Vietnam War from his jungle strongholds in the mountains of Laos and later helped tens of thousands of Hmong immigrants settle in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California, died of pneumonia Thursday night in a hospital near Fresno, Calif.
His passing was also on the minds of young diners at St. Paul’s Destiny Cafe, near the Lao Family office. But as with many younger Hmong Americans, their grief was less visible, their pain less personal. To them, the general is seen as more like George Washington than he is as a personal hero.
“From what I know, he’s our leader. He was the one who led us during the Vietnam War. It’s because of his leadership that most of us were able to get the opportunity to come here. That’s as far as I know,” Yee Kue, 30, said, enjoying a bowl of pho with his wife, Nee Kue, 27.
The day unfolded like any other for them, but with the constant reminder that a key figure in their community’s history was gone.
“It’s there in the back of our minds,” Yee Kue said. “We know our leader is not there anymore. It also leaves a question for us: Who will represent us, who will lead us, who will speak for us?”
Chi Vang, the general’s 46-year-old son, said that family elders decided to honor Vang Pao with a days-long memorial service in Fresno, but that there may also be an opportunity for mourners to pay their respects at a viewing in Minnesota.
“When he traveled here, the family was already talking to him about his health and the need to stay at home to relax, but his whole life was geared toward the Hmong community,” said Chi Vang, one of the general’s 32 children. “We are planning an enormous international event fit for a king.”
Vang’s family members in California were making funeral plans, said Charlie Waters, a longtime family friend. It’s possible that Vang’s body will be brought to Minnesota so the community here can pay their respects, but nothing has been decided yet, Waters said.
Vang supporters in California also are pushing to have the general buried at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of the role he played during the Vietnam War.
If needed, ‘he would come’
Hours before the memorial service was to begin at the Lao Family offices, volunteers were busy setting up the room.
They placed packs of incense and boxes of tissue on a table near the front door. A large photo of a smiling general formed the center of a colorful shrine, decorated with candles and giant, shiny paper ornaments shaped like hearts.
“It is very stunning,” Ka Houa Yang, president of Lao Family Community of Minnesota, said of Vang’s death. “We cannot measure what he did for the community.”
Yang, proudly wearing an “I support Gen. Vang Pao” button, wiped his eyes. The buttons were made in 2007 by Vang supporters when the general was under investigation for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Laotian government.
Many remembered seeing Vang in St. Paul in November when he participated in Hmong New Year festivities. His last public appearances in California were at Hmong New Year festivals he presided over.
Yang said his parents told stories of seeing Vang fight the Communists. Yang said he came to know the general through his work with Lao Family and found that Vang’s support for the Hmong in Minnesota was unwavering. “I saw that whenever we needed him here, he would come,” he said. “That proved to me that what my parents had said about him was true.”
The former guerrilla leader has been widely praised for fighting heroically for the United States in Laos during the “Secret War” in the 1960s, backed by the CIA. Vang later led his people from refugee camps in Thailand to the United States for a new start.
But his image took a hit in 2007 when federal agents accused him and others of 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.
No evidence ever emerged that Vang helped develop or write the strategy, and all charges were dropped in September 2009.
Vang’s legal battle energized the Hmong-Americans who saw him as a symbol of 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.
“He’s an icon for the elders,” said Dao Her, 36. “Our parents used to tell us what he did for the Hmong community. Those are the stories we were told growing up.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Allie Shah • 612-673-4488