WESTMINSTER – "The General," now 79, no longer commands battalions of Hmong guerrilla fighters or the fawning attention of U.S. lawmakers and heads of state.
For years, Gen. Vang Pao has made his headquarters in a ranch-style home on an Orange County cul-de-sac. It's a world away from Long Chieng, the secret CIA base in the mountains of northern Laos known as "Spook Heaven," where he lived from 1963 to 1975, waging war on Lao and Vietnamese communists with his jungle army of Hmong and Iu Mien warriors.
The face of Hmong people worldwide holds court here on his beige sofa, his brown eyes still shooting fire, his will and wits unblunted by a barrage of health and legal problems.
His former patron, the U.S. government, charged him and 10 others in June 2007 with plotting the violent overthrow of their old enemy, communist Laos.
After a six-month undercover investigation known as Operation Tarnished Eagle, more than 200 federal agents and police fanned out to arrest Vang and 10 other suspects.
The federal indictment filed in Sacramento accuses them of conspiracy to "kill, kidnap and maim" by financing a mercenary force armed with AK-47s, Stinger and anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, Claymore mines and other explosives.
The co-conspirators allegedly commissioned one of the suspects, Fresno businessman David Dang Vang, to draft "Operation Popcorn (Political Opposition Party's Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation)." The 18-page blueprint outlines how Laos could be transformed into an American-style democracy with free elections, freedom of speech, a constitution and judiciary, and a congress that included Hmong and other ethnic minorities.
The group, according to federal court documents, had no weapons or soldiers of its own – the alleged co-conspirators were offered a menu of munitions and mercenaries at a Sacramento Thai restaurant by an undercover Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent posing as an arms dealer with CIA connections.
If convicted, Vang could die in prison, an ignominious end for the man former CIA officers have called the greatest general of the Vietnam War.
And yet Vang's profile has never been higher in the Hmong community. He's made several trips to Merced, including a December visit to ring in the Hmong New Year.
His arrest has rallied a new, much larger army of Hmong Americans. Vang has become the emblem of a Hmong civil rights movement fighting for public acknowledgment of the Hmong role in the Vietnam War and liberation of those still living in the jungles of Laos.
"It's not just about a human being that brought us over to America; it's a whole social justice movement," said Louansee Moua, 33, chief of staff to San Jose City Councilwoman Madison Nguyen. "People are going to rallies because they want the Hmong to be recognized for what they've done for the country."
This past May, in the biggest demonstration ever at Sacramento's federal courthouse, 8,000 Hmong marched from the Capitol chanting, "Free Vang Pao."
The general, flanked by security guards, was treated like a rock star as he made his way through the arcade of American flags and outstretched arms.
That shining moment of validation reinvigorated Vang, who has battled diabetes, heart problems, cataracts and a growing belief among young Hmong that his time had passed.
"I feel great for all their support," Vang said in his living room, framed by photos of his glory days in Laos. "But since 1944, all I've been doing is helping my people progress forward in life, whether it's finding food to eat, or education.
"Now we're able to stand with other people at their height, and achieve and succeed beyond my wildest dreams."
Hmong fighters left in lurch
On a weekday morning last month, Vang engaged The Bee in a spirited three-hour conversation in Hmong, French and English. Vang's lawyers would not let him talk about his legal case or the politics of Laos. Instead, he passionately recounted the evolution of his people from farmers to freedom fighters, illiterate hill people who crossed mountains, rivers and oceans to be reborn in the United States.
The "King of the Hmong," as Vang is called by veterans, learned how to lead from his father, Neng Chu Vang, a county leader from Nong Het, Laos.
"The Hmong people didn't know how to read and write, but he knew about laws and was able to help them," Vang said.
Vang's dad sent him to school from ages 10 to 15, when the Japanese invaded Indochina – the French colonial peninsula that includes modern-day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – and the French turned him into a soldier.
In 1960, President John F. Kennedy feared Laos would be the first domino to fall to the communists and authorized the CIA to recruit Hmong jungle fighters. About 25,000 were shaped into Special Guerilla Units, and over the next 15 years the CIA armed an additional 95,000 Hmong partisans with rifles and machine guns, Vang said.
"The war in Laos was my business," said Bill Lair, the CIA case officer who recruited the Hmong and now lives in Texas. "While they were largely uneducated, they were extremely intelligent people and we knew they would do well."
Vang said the Hmong were given three objectives: to disrupt communist troops and supplies moving from North to South Vietnam; to save downed U.S. pilots; and to protect strategic U.S. installations in Laos and South Vietnam.
At first, "there were no real tactics, we were doing everything in the blind and in the dark, and we had to have the guts to push forward," Vang said.
The guerrilla war forged the Hmong farmers into fighters who learned to recalibrate machine guns and assault rifles, throw grenades, drive jeeps and fly helicopters and planes, Vang said proudly. "We came up with tactics to attack the enemy because we knew the terrain better."
"Without the Hmong, the U.S. would have to lose 300,000 minimum, absolutely," instead of 58,000, Vang thundered in the same baritone that inspired fear and respect in his troops.
But in 1973, the United States withdrew its planes and special forces officers from Laos, and the Hmong were left to fend for themselves against superior communist forces. By the end of the war, the Hmong guerrillas had suffered 35,000 casualties.
When Laos fell in May 1975, U.S. aircraft evacuated Vang and 2,500 of the Hmong and Iu Mien guerrillas living in and around Long Chieng.
Vang was resettled on a Montana ranch before moving to Orange County.
Left behind were thousands of Hmong freedom fighters and their families, who fled into the jungles with communist forces at their heels. Many were shot to death. Others drowned trying to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. Those who made it spent years behind barbed wire in Thai refugee camps.
Since the war's end, about 250,000 Hmong have been granted refugee status in the United States. Most settled in poor neighborhoods in Sacramento, Fresno, Merced and St. Paul, Minn. Soldiers and farmers by tradition, many of the adults were ill-equipped for American urban life. Some of their children excelled in school; others felt like outsiders in both cultures and formed street gangs for a sense of identity.
To help his people cope, Vang established a chain of Lao Family Community centers in Sacramento and nearly a dozen other cities. The centers offered English and citizenship classes and provided Hmong social workers.
Hmong who had entrusted "the General" with their lives in Laos continued to follow his orders here, relying on him to resolve disputes and solve an array of problems.
"For the past 35 years in this country the Hmong communities have been calling me constantly about education, health, social services, employment and just about every aspect of life here," Vang said.
Dreams of return fade
Vang, who's put on a few pounds and is on a restricted diet because of his health problems, still speaks with volume and clarity.
He says he gets about three hours' sleep and does his clearest thinking at 5 a.m., a legacy of the war, "when I was always up directing aircraft on reconnaissance missions and bombing runs."
He has 25 children from several wives – in Laos, Hmong men of status often had multiple wives and married their relatives' widows. He jokes that he can't keep track of his grandchildren, though he still knows the names of all his commanders.
The general retains the moral authority he earned as a warrior. Many at the Sacramento rally brandished the classic photo of the handsome, supremely confident young major general in his Royal Lao Army uniform circa 1965.
That Vang Pao – who Hmong believed possessed a tiger's spirit that protected him from bullets – hangs in thousands of Hmong American homes, just as Catholics hang pictures of President John F. Kennedy.
A large print sits over Vang's couch.
Hmong veteran Chue Lor, 62, has the same photo, said his daughter Koua Jacklyn Franz, executive director of the Sacramento Hmong Women's Heritage Association.
Franz, 29, has a different Vang Pao photo in her office, "a poster of him reading to children as part of a statewide literacy campaign."
That's the Vang Pao who beats the drum of education and hard work.
"How you feel about him varies from individual to individual, but I have great respect for the man," Franz said. "An entire population was on his shoulders, and he had to make decisions based on what opportunities were available to him."
For decades, as he watched elder Hmong struggle in America, Vang would declare "Next year in Laos!" at Hmong New Year's celebrations.
Louansee Moua remembers her parents' generation literally buying into Vang's promises of reconquering Laos someday. Thousands of Hmong Americans would buy promissory notes from Vang's organization in exchange for promises of commissions or political appointments in the new, free Laos.
Hmong youth – many of whom had no interest in a return to Laos – often saw their family's hard-earned savings go to the promissory notes instead of their college educations.
"My parents were part of this over the years," Moua said. "When I was young, idealistic and straight out of college, and being in the midst of this stuff, of course I was angry."
"Obviously, they learned they're not going back, but they didn't know any better – you're still trying to establish yourself in this country and trying to get jobs."
Even Vang seemed to abandon that dream when he met with Vietnamese officials in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 2003.
The deal: If Vang supported normalizing U.S. trade relations with Laos, Vietnam would lean on Laos to stop persecuting several thousand Hmong still living in the jungles.
On Nov. 23, 2003, Vang and his eldest son, Cha Vang, unveiled Vang's "New Doctrine" before nearly 1,000 stunned Hmong in St. Paul.
Vang declared, "It is time to let the past stay in the history books and to let a new era of peace, prosperity and reconciliation return to Laos."
In recent years, if the Hmong dream of a triumphant return has faded, concern has intensified for distant Hmong relatives still living in the jungles. Though the Lao government denies the charges, human rights groups say jungle Hmong are being shot or starved to death by Lao soldiers who regard them as rebels.
A searing documentary released in 2006 by Brooklyn-based filmmaker Rebecca Sommer includes footage of emaciated Hmong living on the run in jungle camps, foraging for food and shelter.
The film's title – "Hunted Like Animals" – has become a rallying cry for Hmong young and old.
Their plight inspired two of the defendants in the conspiracy case – Harrison Jack, a Vietnam veteran from Woodland, and Lo Cha Thao, a Vang confidant – to form a humanitarian organization to raise money for aid, according to one of Jack's former lawyers.
Federal prosecutors allege the goal was more violent.
Documents filed in the federal court case describe Jack and Thao discussing details of a military coup, down to which Laotian government buildings should be blown up. Thao allegedly said he wanted another "9/11" in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, and joked that "Col. Jack is going to be my prime minister."
Conspiracy or betrayal?
Larry Brown, the acting U.S. attorney in Sacramento, said his office understood Vang's stature when the investigation was launched and the charges filed.
"Prosecution decisions can't be based on popular opinion," Brown said. "It would be wholly inappropriate to have a different standard of justice for those who are iconic or beloved."
The defendants are charged with violating the Neutrality Act, "which stands for the proposition that one cannot conspire to overthrow a foreign government we are not at war with," Brown said.
The defense, led by San Francisco attorney John Keker, claims the suspects were entrapped by an undercover agent who led them to believe he was backed by the U.S. government. Keker maintains Vang was brought to the table at the agent's request and opposed any violence.
For many Hmong Americans, whether there was or wasn't a conspiracy doesn't matter – the case, they say, is another example of betrayal by the government that recruited them to give their lives for freedom. Why, they ask, after years of using the Hmong to fight communism, would the U.S. government conduct a sting operation? Why didn't federal agents just tell Vang to make any talk of a plot go away?
Brown's office has gotten sacks of mail asking for Vang's release.
"There are approximately 3,761 letters, plus about 25 petitions ranging from 18 names to 4,110," reported Brown's secretary, Mary Wenger. "Letters came from as far away as Australia and France and all across the United States."
Vang has been out on bail for a year, resuming his schedule as Hmong royalty crisscrossing the nation. By summer's end, he will have toured communities in Oklahoma, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Alaska.
Wherever he goes, Vang has audiences with clan leaders, said Paula Yang, a Fresno community leader.
At a recent wedding in Fresno, "he spoke to a young couple in a very open manner, what responsibility the man should take as a stepfather, to provide a career and respect your woman and not raise your hand on her," Yang said.
On another Fresno stop, to ward off evil spirits, he tied a white good luck string on an elder who had recovered from cancer.
"It's all part of the psychological effect," Yang said. The older generation "love the general more they love their own parents."
A voice for the younger generation, comedian Tou Ger Xiong, said Vang's case has inspired the greatest wave of Hmong activism in 35 years in America.
"This is great synergy, where Hmong leaders have coordinated peaceful rallies around the country at the same time," said Xiong, 35, who lives in St. Paul.
Many elders "owe this guy their lives and feel like he's a god or a king – when you arrest him, you arrest everything they believe in. This is coming from the same government who actually paid him and hired him to fight on their side."
Vang understands the power of the movement and hopes to use it to get his troops U.S. veterans' benefits.
Though he respects new leaders such as Mee Moua and Cy Thao, Hmong Americans serving in Minnesota's Legislature, he still relishes his role as leader of the once and future Hmong, taking on gangs, gambling addiction and other social ills as he awaits his next court appearance in October.
"I've been running around addressing those issues and keeping everybody's hopes up," he said. "I think 10 generations from now you cannot find another V.P. I tell you true. They cannot work 16, 17 hours a day, they are not high-powered enough."