The fighting came over the mountain in 1959, the artillery so close it shook the family farm. The communist march into Laos was underway, with North Vietnam carving the Ho Chi Minh Trail to move soldiers and supplies south to support the Viet Cong.
Chue Vang was a boy when that cannon blast sent the chickens and pigs running across the farm. His parents collected their 11 children and packed their meager supplies. War was coming and life on the mountain would never be the same again.
“The fighting came and they shot the big gun,” said Vang. “I said, ‘Mom, what’s wrong. Why are they fighting?’ My mom said we have to go. We moved out of the village and left to go to the other side of the mountain.”
Vang recounted the early years of his life outside Samneau, a rural but strategically placed village on the border of Laos and North Vietnam. Hmong families like his didn’t keep written records, so he doesn’t know his birthday.
He goes with June 10, 1951.
The date makes him 8 when the Pathet Lao – a political movement in Laos allied with the Vietnamese communists – expanded its power.
As the fighting escalated, Gen. Vang Pao and his CIA backers came looking for Hmong soldiers to bolster their resistance forces and stop the flow of North Vietnamese troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Some of the recruits were just 8 years old.
“That’s when they said we need young soldiers – we need every man around to be the soldier,” Vang said. “They used a tape measure. You’re 4 feet or 5 feet (tall), or maybe 3 feet, we hire you to be young soldier.”
It was 1962 and Vang, hardly 11, wasn’t tall enough to sling the weapon without the muzzle dragging in the mud. But he was hired with his father and younger brother nonetheless. They took up arms against the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese, fighting a battle they would not win.
Vang doesn’t talk much about his days as a child soldier, though he shared a single story. When the sun set over the jungle and the dark set in, he kept his rifle poised. They worked one-hour shifts guarding the perimeter, and he didn’t understand why his friend fired his rifle into the jungle every night.
“I said, ‘What’s wrong? You make scare for all soldiers on the mountain,’ ” Vang said. “I told him, ‘You stay with me. Show me why you shoot every night.’ ”
The two sat together guarding the camp, their eyes fixed on the dense jungle before them. Vang told his friend to identify his target before pulling the trigger. Wait until the figure closes to within six yards.
“You have to make sure it’s real person, or maybe not,” Vang said. “A dog came running out and I said, ‘See! It’s just an animal. That’s what you’re shooting at each night.’ He said, ‘You a very smart guy. Your life should be long enough for you.' ”
On a Saturday morning in Missoula, Vang and his expanded Hmong family sat behind their tables at the Farmers Market. Few of the local Hmong remember the communist takeover of Laos, or the Vietnam War that followed.
The younger ones were born in America and point to their parents, saying they might know something more. The parents say most of the elders have passed away, so they point to Vang, calling him the elder.
Vang arranged fresh green vegetables and plump onions on the table. Back on the farm in Laos, his Hmong family grew a meager stock of vegetables when the summer sun allowed. The family farmed chickens and pigs, a buffalo, rice and corn, and poppies.
Smoking opium was culturally accepted in the region. But when the Americans arrived, sales soared in an illicit drug trade that helped fund Gen. Pao’s resistance army.
“We grow the poppy to make money,” Vang said, recalling how he’d scratch the pods to extract the opium. “We grow the poppy for three years before I go to school.”
The fighting went on and the war seemed as though it would never end. During the day, Vang watched as American B-52 bombers appeared in the sky, making their daily raids into North Vietnam.
He hadn’t met Gen. Pao and he didn’t know the CIA had been shipping weapons and military supplies to the Hmong since the closing days of the Eisenhower administration. He didn’t know that Pao had established a guerrilla force of nearly 39,000 men and boys to resist the communist takeover.
He came to dislike the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese.
“If they take over the town or city, wherever, they collect everything,” Vang said. “You have five chickens, they take two for soldier. If you have rice and you have something to eat, they come and divide it. They say, ‘You take 25 pounds and we take 25 pounds for soldier.’ We cannot work farm. We don’t have rice or anything to eat.”
Vang’s father insisted he give up soldiering to go to school. Vang complied when he was 14. He started at a place he called the mountain school, where he learned to read and write.
Several years later, still in school, Vang got the news that would change his life. His father had been captured by the Pathet Lao, and he would never see him alive again.
Remembering the day, his eyes welled with tears. He welcomed America’s involvement in the war.
“They fly from Thailand to North Vietnam to put bomb on soldier over there,” he said. “The soldiers, oh so nice. They don’t speak our language, but they still say ‘hi.’ The helicopters pick up our people and the big soldiers take up pig, chicken, whatever. They just pick it up and go inside the helicopter.”
On the Tet holiday in 1968, Viet Cong forces surged across South Vietnam in a devastating surprise attack. The Marine base at Khe Sanh was also under siege, a battle that lasted 77 days.
Vang hunkered down in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. He thought about his father, a prisoner of a clandestine war, and he watched the years roll by.
Without work and the communist takeover nearly complete, thousands of Hmong fled into the jungle, refugees heading for Thailand. Vang arrived in Thailand under different circumstances in 1972.
With funding from the U.S. government, and with the help of a man named Dao Yang, Vang was sent to train at a fish hatchery. Such skills could provide food for the people of Laos.
While in Thailand, he met Jerry Daniels, a CIA operative who worked as the liaison between the U.S. government and Gen. Pao.
After years of war, Daniels knew the Hmong people well. He also understood their fate in the hands of the communists, their enemies in a secret war backed by the U.S. government.
As one expert told the New York Times, “The U.S. put the Hmong into this meat grinder, mostly to save U.S. soldiers from fighting and dying there.” America’s involvement in the “secret war” came as a surprise to Vang.
“We not thinking it’s the United States,” he said. “We thinking it’s just the Laotian government and the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao fighting each other. We never know until we move to bigger city, and they say the United States government come over in secret to help those of us fighting.”
When Laos fell to the communists, Daniels organized a secret evacuation of Hmong. From Thailand, the lucky ones were sent to Missoula, where Daniels had graduated from high school. Gen. Pao had also relocated to Missoula with Daniels' help, buying a farm in the Bitterroot Valley.
Vang called Daniels a good man – a Hmong hero who helped thousands of his people reach safety. But an estimated 50,000 were left behind, and some figures suggest thousands are still hiding in the jungles of Laos.
“Daniels said, ‘If you stay here, you don’t have future in Thailand, and no more Laos,' ” Vang said. “Daniels said, ‘If you go to United States, you go to school, work, maybe in 10 years you buy house, your kids go to school and you have better life.’ ”
Gen. Pao and the ranking military officers were the first to go, and there were many of them, Vang said. Those who remained drew numbers. The lucky ones got a seat on a plane to America.
“Jerry Daniels said, ‘You better go to Missoula because your family is there,’ ” Vang said. “‘You be the leader working for Gen. Vang Pao.’ ”
Vang earned credit for working in the fish hatchery, and with the help of Daniels, he arrived in Missoula with his wife, Va Moua, in July 1979. His mother arrived in 1984. The communists had released his father after the war, and while Vang tried desperately to help him, he could not.
It remains a painful memory.
“I wrote a letter to the old country, asking my cousins to get my dad and bring him to the big city to help him,” Vang said. “He didn’t know where to go. He worked until 1982 and he passed away. I never see him after he was captured.”
Vang looked back over the years and considered his youth, his schooling, his country’s communist takeover. He considered the past 36 years in Missoula and the success of his children.
One now works as a pharmacist in California, another as an electrical engineer in Japan. Another recently earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana. He thought about his home, and considered the advice Daniels gave him so many years ago in Thailand.
“Over there, you’re living free but something is still not really good for you,” Vang said. “Here you have money to feed your family, and you can go out everywhere you want to go. Even my children say, ‘Dad, you have to stay here.’ ”