Now, Yang leads the Merced Lao Family Community, a center that has provided a variety of social services since 1983 to help Hmong prosper in American life. The South Merced hub serves as the city hall for this community within a community. Classes are taught, counseling is offered and groups meet. City proclamations from the early 1990s honoring the local refugees hang on the wall, along with a chart of the center's two-dozen leaders.
Thrust from Laos as a refugee, Yang says his take on the Iraq war has been shaped by watching his fellow countrymen die as the result of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina more than three decades ago.
Inside a conference room, Yang, wearing a dark blue blazer with an American flag pin on his left lapel, spoke slowly and chose his words carefully. The wiry 71-year-old, sporting a thinning mustache and a tuft of black hair on his chin, firmly said the war was one of opportunity that could benefit America's economy.
While the United States' objective in Iraq -- first finding weapons of mass destruction, then rooting out terrorists and now establishing a democracy -- has shifted over time and even proved to be misguided, Yang said the country's stability is what should signal mission accomplished. No more exploding cars, no more suicide bombers and no more warring factions.
The American people and the president, Republican or Democrat, must carefully consider a withdrawal, especially in light of the Hmong suffering that has been kept in the shadows so long. A power shift -- or a power vacuum -- could lead to the slaughter of thousands of Iraqis who helped the United States, Yang said.
The Hmong community's fervent support for keeping American troops, some their own sons and daughters, in Iraq stems from the American role in the Secret War, a CIA-backed operation aimed to help the U.S. government win the Vietnam War.
Laos borders the western edge of Vietnam and was seen by American policymakers as a key country in which to plant democracy in Southeast Asia. It was also viewed as one of the potential falling dominoes, should communism -- America's 20th century terrorism -- triumph in Indochina.
In 1961, unbeknownst to the American public, the CIA began training Hmong men to fight against Laotian communists and appointed Gen. Vang Pao to lead the 40,000-strong jungle army. But then, as popular support of the Vietnam War waned among Americans, the CIA withdrew its support, and communists took control of Laos in 1975, leaving their secret army vulnerable.
The United States evacuated the army's top brass, including Pao, that year. Nearly 44,000 more escaped across the Mekong River into Thailand's refugee camps. Others took to the jungle for safety and are reported to be still hiding and hunted there today.
Over the next decade, about 300,000 Hmong took refuge in Thailand, and most then immigrated to the United States. The ones who couldn't escape were sent to re-education camps. Many were never seen again.
The United States' Hmong community was thrust into headlines most recently when Pao, now 77, was arrested by federal agents in June for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Laotian government -- a goal the United States actively supported decades ago, but now opposes. Some Hmong call the charges against Pao another slap from the government they helped, while others accept that they must follow United States law while here.
Challenging the Hmong's overall patriotism, recent sweeping homeland security legislation branded them terrorists because of their attempt to overthrow the Laotian government in the '70s. Most likely the result of an oversight, the message still stunned Hmong elders. "They feel betrayed," Hmong National Development President Paul Lo noted. "The U.S. government's memory is short."