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Should Arlington be a burial site for Vang Pao?

Arlington burial for Vang Pao, chief of secret CIA-backed army?

By Zachary Roth
  • Vang-Pao.jpg

    Some U.S. lawmakers want an Arlington National Cemetery burial for the controversial Laotian Hmong ex-general of a secret CIA-backed army that fought communism during the Vietnam War.

Vang Pao, who died in California last week at age 81, commanded thousands of Hmong fighters in a covert U.S.-backed war against North Vietnamese and Laotian communists during the 1960s and '70s. His legendary skills at guerrilla warfare led some followers to see him as a minor deity.

Reps. Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa, both California Democrats, have written to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, requesting that Vang Pao be buried alongside American soldiers at Arlington.

In the mid-1960s, the CIA was stepping up its anti-communist efforts in Southeast Asia. It was training a proxy army to fight in Laos, and flying missions in unmarked aircraft. But it needed a committed, charismatic leader through whom to orchestrate its secret war. Vang Pao, then a general in the Royal Army of Laos, fit the bill.

[Related: Family pleads for return of CIA prisoner's remains]

CIA operative Bill Lair, who helped recruit Vang Pao in 1961, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2005 that he was "probably the greatest guerrilla leader in the world."

Vang Pao's leadership "rested on the force of his own personality, which was energetic, volatile, direct and fearless," historian Christopher Robbins wrote in "The Ravens -- Pilots of the Secret War in Laos." Some followers saw Vang Pao as a "minor deity," according to Robbins.

After communists consolidated control of Laos, Vang Pao fled to the U.S. in 1975. He was sentenced to death in absentia. During his time in the U.S., he helped negotiate the resettlement in the U.S. of tens of thousands of Hmong.


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