ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. — The old Hmong veterans stood at ragged attention, in a cemetery whose soil is still closed to them.
Many lifetimes ago, in the Vietnam War, they had fought alongside U.S. forces. Now, they are grandfathers, resettled refugees living in places like the Central Valley. They gathered Friday, a little platoon's worth, to commemorate what came to be called the secret army in the Kingdom of Laos.
"We would like to remember our friends, who lost their lives defending freedom," said Wangyee Vang, president of the Fresno-based Lao Veterans of America Institute. "When we were all alive, we promised to remember each other."
Vang was speaking in the shade of an Atlas cedar tree, planted in 1997 to mark the placement of a small granite memorial honoring Hmong and Lao veterans. Every year since, while tourists walk on without a clue, some of the veterans and their allies have gathered for a modest service at the memorial site that's just slightly off the beaten track.
On Friday, about 20 people assembled. Some, like Vang, were in dark suits. Others favored fresh-looking camouflage fatigues. One, a staffer for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, graduated from college in 2009. Another, former civilian adviser Michael D. Benge, graduated in 1962 and survived five years as a prisoner of war after being captured by the North Vietnamese.
"It's humbling, remembering the people we lost," said Sacramento-area resident Fou Phan. "We lost many, many leaders, in Laos, and here in the United States."
Hmong soldiers aided U.S. special forces and CIA operatives. They guarded bases that no one was supposed to know about, and rescued downed U.S. airmen who weren't supposed to be there. Philip Smith, the Washington liaison for the Lao Veterans of America, called it on Friday "the largest covert operation in U.S. history prior to the war in Afghanistan."
Vang, who is now 65, recalls being recruited as a teenager, and serving with some of the CIA's storied paramilitary officers. By some accounts, upward of 30,000 Hmong died during the secret war, which in a way still lingers. The United States dropped 2.5 million tons of ordnance on Laos during the Vietnam War, the Congressional Research Service noted, and the previously unexploded bombs still kill up to 300 people a year.
When communists prevailed in 1975, the Hmong fled by the tens of thousands; first to refugee camps in Thailand, and then to the United States.
Certain regions, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Carolina and California, drew especially large Hmong populations. Nationwide, there are more than a quarter of a million Hmong Americans. They're no longer as isolated as they once were.
Unlike the situation when the Hmong veterans memorial was dedicated in 1997, for instance, multiple Hmong Americans now hold public office.
"It's changing a little bit in the Hmong community," said Vang. "Some of the younger ones have become Americanized. ... They are incorporating themselves into the American society."