ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, Va. — The old Green Beret stood as erect as age would allow and remembered his lethal times in Laos.
Arrayed before 85-year-old John H. “Scotty” Crerar were Hmong veterans, come together from Fresno, Calif., Anchorage, Alaska, and Minneapolis, all the domestic places where a lost war had cast them. Crerar was their blood brother, one who helped train them and fought alongside them.
“We had good students,” Crerar said, “but the part that people forget is that the special forces were learning, too.”
A retired Army colonel with a storied career in special operations, Crerar joined other seasoned Army Special Forces veterans, young congressional staffers and colorfully bedecked Hmong men and women Friday morning in the shadow of an Atlas cedar tree. The Hmong mark May 14-15 as the time when, in 1975, North Vietnamese forces captured the key base used by the CIA and Hmong fighters.
The tree was planted in 1997, next to a small granite marker commemorating Hmong and Lao veterans. The Hmong men, some in suits and a dozen or so in incongruously new camouflage uniforms, and the others were marking a somber anniversary.
Forty years ago, North Vietnamese and communist Pathet Lao forces finished off the Royal Lao Army. It was the end of the Kingdom of Laos, and the start of what is now called the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
The 1975 collapse in Laos scattered the Hmong people, who previously had been recruited by Army Special Forces and CIA operatives during the extended war in Southeast Asia. The Hmong had guarded secret bases and rescued downed U.S. airmen, and they made many sacrifices.
By some accounts, upward of 30,000 Hmong died during the secret war, and that does not tally the entire cost.
“Here,” Fresno resident Richard Xiong said through a translator Friday, pointing to his right shoulder, the site of an old war wound.
It came, he said, from an AK-47.
“Here,” former Clovis, Calif., resident Pasert Lee said in English, pointing to his scalp. “Do you see the scar?”
Artillery, Lee explained.
Between 1961 and 1975, Xiong said, he served with artillery units fighting the communists. Now he is president of the Fresno-based Lao Veterans of America Institute, one of several nonprofit organizations that advocate on behalf of the Hmong community.
Lee said he enlisted to fight the communists on May 21, 1968. He now lives in Anchorage, where he likewise is president of a nonprofit organization aiding the Hmong. Both Lee and Xiong said they came Friday for the same reason.
“This is a celebration for all the veterans,” Xiong said.
Nationwide, there are more than a quarter of a million Hmong living in the United States, many congregated in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Carolina and California’s San Joaquin Valley. Their geographic concentration and the power of their story have given them a little political clout, some of which was on display Friday.
Staffers from the offices of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., among others, participated in the roughly hourlong program at Arlington National Cemetery. Lawmakers themselves, though detained at the Capitol on Friday by unexpected House votes, already had paid their respects by introducing legislation this week on behalf of the Hmong.
Bills reintroduced by Costa and others in the House of Representatives and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and others in the Senate would authorize the burial of Hmong and Lao veterans in U.S. national cemeteries. The lawmakers previously have introduced similar bills; initially, Costa said, to honor the late Hmong military leader Vang Pao, who died in 2011.
On Friday, Vang Pao’s youngest son, Fresno resident Chi Neng Vang, represented the family at the Arlington cemetery commemoration. The 30-year-old, Southern California-born Vang represented, as well, the new generation who know of the parents’ war only through stories.
“We are here,” Vang said, “to pay our respects.”