It has been more than four decades but the White House has finally opened its doors to the Hmong tribal guerrillas who fought communist forces to a standstill in the mountains of northeast Laos in what became known as the “Secret War.”
But in an illustration of the passing years and the loss of collective memory, last month’s historic meeting between President Donald Trump’s advisers and Hmong and Lao combat veterans barely rated a mention in the mainstream US media – or anywhere else for that matter.
The White House meeting followed Trump’s signing of the Lao Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act, allowing for the first time Hmong soldiers to be buried at cemeteries administrated by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
During Memorial Day on May 28, ceremonies and other events were held at Arlington National Cemetery and across the nation to honor the tribal fighters, whose exploits have been documented in numerous books long before they received official recognition.
With Congress forbidding US forces from entering Laos, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) raised the secret army in the mid-1960s in a failed bid to prevent the North Vietnamese from channeling supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and into South Vietnam.
Over the subsequent years, 20,000 Hmong died as fighting swirled across the Plain of Jars and as far south as the CIA’s key base at Long Tieng in central Laos, which never fell to communist forces.
More than 100,000 Hmong veterans and their families fled to the United States when the war ended in 1975, including the late guerrilla leader Vang Pao and 2,000 followers who were airlifted out of Long Tieng in the final days.
An estimated 450,000 remain in Laos and are often targets of retribution by the communist-led Lao government; another 8,000 refugees still live in Thailand, unwilling to be repatriated or resettled in third countries.
The Hmong American community in the US grew from a few thousand to more than 300,000 by 2017, settling initially in Montana and subsequently spreading to all 50 states where they have been active in a wide range of fields, from academia and business to politics and the military.
It has been a unique achievement for an uprooted ethnic community which had no written language and whose simple, isolated life before war embroiled the land-locked kingdom revolved around subsistence slash-and-burn cultivation.
Overcoming discrimination and prejudice, at least 32 Hmong Americans have been elected to city councils, school boards and state legislatures in Minnesota alone, where there is the second largest concentration of Hmong after California.
The vast majority of the growth since 2000 has been from natural increase, except for the admission of a final group of 15,000 refugees in 2004-2005 from Thailand’s Wat Thamkrabok sanctuary after a long policy battle between the US and Thai governments.
“They are much more adaptive and quick to seize an opportunity than Indochinese or American urbanites,” says former US refugee coordinator Lionel Rosenblatt, who had to fight Congress to get the Hmong admitted to the US in the first place because they were considered too primitive.
It wasn’t until May 15, 1997 that the US officially acknowledged its role in the war by inaugurating a monument at Arlington cemetery to the US Special Forces, CIA operatives and Hmong and Lao fighters who died in air and ground operations.
But the Thai military has never officially lifted the veil of secrecy surrounding its own involvement with the US in the Lao conflict in which 2,482 Thais were killed and 10,000 wounded. Another 240 Thai prisoners of war were released in 1973, leaving 755 still listed as missing in action.
The longest held Thai prisoner, Colonel Chaicharn Harnavee, died earlier this year at the age of 87; he was in North Vietnamese custody for 10 years and earned the US Silver Star for his bravery in helping his fellow prisoners, including Senator John McCain.
Organized into 36 battalion-sized units, many of the 30,000 Thais who fought in Laos were unemployed northeastern farmers and other volunteers who had already completed two years of mandatory military service.
They were led by a cadre of Thai officers seconded to the CIA-run Headquarters 333 at Udon Thani, one of six major airbases the US maintained in Thailand at the height of the wider Indochina war.
About 800 of the officers went on to attain general rank, most notably Gen Pichit Kullavanich, who would command the 1981 operation that overran the Communist Party of Thailand’s Khao Kor stronghold in northern Phetchabun province.
The CIA’s involvement went back to 1961 when the legendary Bill Lair formed the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU), which put truck-counting teams on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and provided instructors for the agency’s growing hill-tribe army.
Lair quit in 1969, upset over the US government’s decision to escalate the conflict in Laos; it was a view shared by many of the 40 to 50 CIA case officers assigned to a theatre that also included the Bolaven Plateau in the southern Laotian panhandle.
In December 1972, the Vietnamese poured two combat divisions into the Plain of Jars, sweeping the Thais before them before being stopped at Skyline Ridge, the rocky escarpment overlooking Long Tieng.
The Thais fought a rearguard action in Laos until a ceasefire was declared under the terms of the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973. The last Thai regiment was withdrawn later that year as the communist Pathet Lao began its creeping takeover of the country.