In memory of his days as a commander of a U.S. special guerrilla unit in Laos, Cherzong Vang sometimes slips into his old, snug army shirt, sips on a can of Michelob beer and gently fingers the medals pinned to his breast pocket. They're a comfort to him.
"They prove I am a leader," said Vang, 58, sitting in his bungalow on St. Paul's East Side.
He came to the United States after leading guerrillas who acted as spotters along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, radioing information on targets to U.S. bombers. Since then he has wanted to prove he could be a leader in this country, too.
More than 20 years after immigrating, Vang has begun the daunting task of finding the thousands of veterans like him who fought for the CIA during the Vietnam War. An office to help them apply for U.S. citizenship opens today.
Vang spent 10 years lobbying for a bill to ease the citizenship process for Hmong veterans and their families.
The bill became law May 26; now Vang knows he is a leader. As president of the United States' largest organization of Hmong veterans, he led hundreds of Hmong and Lao men to Washington over the past five years to persuade the United States to pay its debt to the soldiers who fought for the country. He gathered them 600, 800, 1,000 at a time.
Partly because of his leadership, the new law gives honor to the achievements of the veterans who served between Feb. 28, 1961, and Sept. 18, 1973. It waives normal English-language requirements and eases civics tests, giving many a new beginning. .
New battle begins
Now Vang and others are locating the 45,000 veterans and their relatives who are eligible for U.S. citizenship.
PAGE 2 Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) June 26, 2000, Monday, Metro Edition
During the war, "when the adults died, the children took up their guns and fired," Vang said. "They didn't have time to go to school. They lost their hearing, their short memory. They cannot organize. They cannot learn. They can't remember. They have injuries. They have burns. They are not Lao soldiers. They are United States soldiers."
To locate the estimated 6,000 veterans living in Minnesota, Vang speaks on the radio, publishes notices in newspapers and holds meetings at the Lao Family Community Center in St. Paul.
Starting today, veterans will begin the formal process of applying for citizenship at an office set up at the center, 320 University Av. W., St. Paul. The office will be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays until November 2001.
Vang said veterans should bring personal data, Social Security cards and any available details on their military service. He has lists and maps to help soldiers identify where they lived and fought, information that is needed to complete applications. Legal advisers, interpreters and other volunteers will be on hand.
"Right now, that's our number one priority," Vang said. "Now they'll have the right to vote. The right to do things. The right to help the federal government. The right to freedom. The right to travel to another country."
Some veterans will be able to visit Laos for the first time. Others will be able to reunite their families.
So far, Lao Veterans of America has 2,163 members in Minnesota. Ultimately, the law will affect an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Minnesota veterans and their families, Vang said.
It is a delicate process, said Chris Johnson, a recent Hamline University Law School graduate who has assisted the Lao veterans' effort for five years.
"If there is anything wrong with their paperwork, they could face deportation," Johnson said. "It took them 10 long years to get to this point; we have to be just as dedicated to the implementation process." .
Help in healing
Vang helped educate Americans about how much help the Hmong provided in the largest covert operation in U.S. history, said Philip Smith, who heads the national office of Lao Veterans of America in Washington, D.C.
Vang, Smith said, has helped many veterans establish proof of their role in the war, led people to write thousands of letters to Congress, organized bus trips and arranged meetings with U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento and U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, both of Minnesota.
"He has helped thousands of people feel good about themselves," Smith said. "Imagine coming to this country and people have no idea of who you are,
PAGE 3 Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) June 26, 2000, Monday, Metro Edition all that you did, that you held the North Vietnamese Army at bay, that the Vietnam Memorial would be a lot longer if it had not been for you."
As a high school guidance counselor for the St. Paul School District, Vang, who is married with seven children and 18 grandchildren, said he believes in helping young people succeed.
He has helped several war orphans, such as Mai Moua, 37, of Minneapolis, to understand the role her father played in the war, and helped to recognize his contributions to the Hmong veterans memorial in Arlington, Va.
Moua, a mother of 10, is still haunted by her losses in the war. Her father was killed when she was 10. Her mother and six sisters were killed as they attempted to get through the Laotian jungle to Thailand when she was 14.
Vang "helped me know that my father was a great soldier who fought in the war," she said.
Because the Lao Veterans' Minnesota chapter is the largest, Smith said that Vang also will have the biggest job. But Smith said he's confident that the process will run smoothly.
Vang has met with Curtis Aljets, director of the St. Paul district of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who is preparing to handle the flow of citizenship applications, which could be five times greater than in an average year.
"There's no question that he has been an extraordinary leader," Smith said. "Part of his leadership is being a fighter. There were people who said what we were fighting for was impossible. Cherzong never gave up." . . Key facts
The Minnesota Chapter of the Lao Veterans of America Inc. is seeking Hmong and Lao veterans who fought in the CIA's covert mission during the Vietnam War.
War veterans, their spouses, widows and orphans are eligible to become U.S. citizens as a result of a law passed May 26.
An office will open today to help with applications. Interpreters and lawyers will be available.
- Where: Lao Family Community Center, 320 University Av. W., St. Paul.
- When: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.
- How much: $250 fee for immigration service application and fingerprinting.
- For more information: Call Cherzong Vang, president of the Minnesota Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) June 26, 2000, Monday, Metro Edition Chapter of Lao Veterans of America, 651-774-3479.