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As an American teenager, whenever I asked grown-ups about the Vietnam War, few wanted to discuss it. As an adult, it was just as hard to talk about the war. That's why I never told friends and neighbors about my family's history.
You see, the Vietnam War took place in my family's backyard. My family lived in northeastern Laos, in Nong Het, right on the border with Vietnam. When the CIA needed an ally, they found a charismatic, passionate young man not afraid to die.
That man was my great-uncle, the late Gen. Vang Pao.
He led a guerrilla army into battle against communist troops along the Ho Chi Minh trail — relieving U.S. forces of that burden and saving the lives of countless American soldiers. VP, as he was known to the CIA, personally trained thousands of irregular soldiers.
VP died earlier this year at the age of 81. Some 40,000 mourners converged in downtown Fresno, Calif., to attend his elaborate six-day funeral. Fresno is home to a large population of refugees from Laos. To family, friends and many in the CIA, VP was a military hero, but I hardly knew him.
Only after his death did I find a recording of VP. He says when he was 13, he saw a family from his village unable to pay their taxes. The live pig they offered was not enough for the tax collector. VP cried witnessing this humiliating moment. The tears kept coming until dawn, and when the sun rose, he left his family without a word, and went to join the French Army, which was the occupying colonial force at the time. From that day on, he devoted his life to freeing Hmong people from the chains of poverty.
My Tough Grandma
I never knew his story. I attended his funeral out of respect for one of his 10 sisters, my grandmother Neng Cha. She died four years ago, but people used to tell me that if she had been born a boy, she would have been the one tapped by the CIA to help them during the Vietnam War.
In truth, Grandma did believe she would have been a better commander than her brother.
She was afraid of no one. She even claimed to scare ghosts. This was a woman of rare qualities, and piercing words. One time, during a visit back to Laos, I woke up especially early to capture the tranquility of that morning.
The monsoon rains had just begun, the farm animals were waking, and Grandma, well, she did what she does best — speak her mind. I decided to record her.
"I'm not like you," she says in the recording, having given me her usual angry face. "You call yourself a journalist, fooling around like this — it's crap!"
She didn't mince words. Smiling? Not in her DNA. Love? She loves to hate. Shower? Nope. In fact, she was proud that she smelled. In her youth, she was so tough that she'd ride on horseback down deep valleys before dawn to barter alone with Chinese and Burmese merchants.
Secrets From The Past
This got me wondering about the surviving sisters of Gen. Vang Pao — Lee, Xai, Ying and Der. Would they be like my grandmother? What were their lives like with a brother like VP?
Lee lives on a farm in Fresno. She's in her 70s but tills the land much as she did back in Laos. Like a traditional Hmong girl, she begins her story with the name of her parents, their occupation, farming and the name of their village.
Lee starts talking about her brother and then tells me a secret: Her brother did not marry eight wives to unite the many Hmong clans, as legend has it. It was, she says, for love.
He kept searching, Lee says, for someone like his first wife, apparently his true love, who died unexpectedly. Some allege she was poisoned so other clans could offer VP their daughters for political reasons.
There are many more secrets and tales from the past, so Lee and I call on the eldest sister. Her name is Ying, and she claims she's about 100. She lives just a few miles from the farm.
Ying is weak, has a bad knee, but manages to smile constantly when she talks to me.
Remember to love us, OK, she says.
She tells me her brother loved them dearly, so much that he never raised his voice at them. The one thing he was firm about, Ying says, was for them to dress down. He didn't want them to attract suitors or to get married. And when they did, VP took their husbands away to become soldiers alongside him. Some died in battle.
'There Will Never Be Another Like Him'
At the funeral hall, I meet the other two surviving sisters, Xai and Der.
Xai is full of energy and youth in her late 70s. When I turn on my recorder, she says this is her chance to become famous. But when the questions begin, the laughter stops, and tears start to fall.
"When there was a funeral, a party or a special dinner," says Xai, "VP would be invited to speak. His voice will never be heard again; there will never be another like him."
The youngest sister, Der, agrees. She says the Hmong in the U.S. are now without leadership, that her brother was the uniting force behind 18 clans.
There are so many stories to tell, she says, but right now this is a time to mourn.
This is the first time the sisters of Gen. Vang Pao have been asked to speak publicly about their brother, and about their lives. I tell them I promise to be the keeper of their stories, so they smile proudly and agree to meet again soon.
Photos: Hmong slideshow
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