In full military dress, a decorated group of 24 Lao Hmong veterans stood straight and tall in the morning sun.
They were honored Saturday during opening ceremonies of a two-day Asian Memorial Festival, held for the first time in Fond du Lac, at the soccer complex along North Campus Drive.
The Hmong were recruited by the CIA in a “secret” campaign during the Vietnam War to engage Communist troops in Laos. Because of their service, the lives of countless American troops were saved. Tens of thousands of Hmong were killed among a population of only 250,000.
“These veterans aided America, and we have great respect for their service to this country,” said Txerthoj Vang, one of the festival coordinators and a Hmong interpreter.
From teens in hoodies with pierced ears and spiked hair to elderly gentlemen dressed in their best suits, Hmong from throughout the state gathered to dance and sing, to play volleyball and soccer, to honor the dead, and to join together in community as a means of keeping their culture alive.
Kong Thao came from Wausau with her father Lee Thao to sell traditional Hmong/Chinese-style clothing. The colorful satin dresses contain intricate beadwork and are worn during the Hmong New Year and at weddings.
“When my grandmother lived in Thailand everything was sewn by hand,” Kong Thao said. “Things are different now, but we still believe in our culture, the clothing and the old traditions.”
Big mounds of purple sticky rice were heaped on plates by Chong Moua, who came from St. Paul, Minn., to cook food for the large crowds expected over the Memorial Day weekend. The rice is served with beef or dace fish, ribs, chicken legs and a spicy Hmong sausage. Fried bananas are also offered.
“Sticky rice fills you up real fast and you don’t consume so much,” he said. “Back in Laos we used to cultivate the grain and it is actually purple in color.”
Part of a soccer team from Fond du Lac called Flash, Tou Lor and his friends loaded up with carbs before the start of the tournament. Nine teams were playing for a chance to win prize money of up to $4,000.
“I don’t travel a lot, so this is a time for us to meet family and friends and new people from different parts of the state. It’s always fun,” he said.
Xia Pao Vang headed up the entertainment, which included singing, dance and traditional folksong contests. He came to the U.S. in 1987. His late father was one of the soldiers who worked for the CIA.
“Of course it took getting used to the weather here, but everything was better, the jobs, the education of our children. We are proud to be a part of this country,” he said.
Wisconsin is home to approximately 45,000 Hmong.
University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac President John Short spoke at the event about the need to celebrate cultural diversity.
“I think diverse ideas and perspectives in a community empower us and move us forward,” he said. “It leads to innovations and new ideas.”
Fond du Lac County Executive Alan Buechel said an event that draws 2,000 people to the community provides a positive economic impact. And the Hmong veterans deserve to be honored.
“The Hmong people played a critical role in Vietnam and they saved the lives of hundreds of American soldiers. It’s important for us to pay tribute to their service,” Buechel said.
During the war Hmong troops, led by Major General Vang Pao, intervened along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos from South Vietnam. They rescued downed American pilots inside Laos and defended the country from North Vietnamese troops from 1961-75.
When the U.S. pulled out of southeast Asia, the Hmong people were driven into the jungle by Communist troops. Many ended up in refugee camps in Thailand. Eventually the U.S. kept its promise to help the people and brought them to America in waves, beginning in the late 1970s. In 2004, 3,000 Hmong refugees were brought to Wisconsin.
Special guests at the event included Song Vang from California, wife of the Major General Vang Pao, and Nao Tou Lor, president of the Board of Directors of Lao Veterans of America, Inc.
The ceremony included the releasing of 18 pigeons, symbolizing the souls of veterans who fought and died for freedom.
“Because of them, many of us have had the opportunity to start a new life and freedom with prosperity here in the United States,” said event organizer Kor Xiong.
The event was co-sponsored by Hmong Wisconsin Radio.
Sharon Roznik can be reached at 907-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.