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Hmong soldiers join table of honor

BY: ANNYSA JOHNSON, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 28, 2002 Tuesday

A round table, draped with white linen, sits before the towering pillars that mark the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Milwaukee lakefront.

Its chairs are empty, though each place is set in memory of those soldiers and civilians taken prisoner or missing in action during the Vietnam War.

But there is a seventh seat at the table this Memorial Day.

For the first time, the tens of thousands of Hmong soldiers who fought and died alongside Americans in Vietnam were honored with a place at the "Missing Man Table."

For Chue C. Xiong, now a U.S. citizen whose family suffered untold misery as a result of the war, it is a welcome acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by many in his homeland.

"It's sad because my father die for this cause, and some in U.S. not recognize it publicly," said Xiong, who came to the United States with an uncle at 16.

"Most American citizens know little or nothing about how the Hmong serve the CIA and the United States."

The ceremony, which included the release of 5,000 balloons bearing the names of POWs and MIAs, was one of several emotional tributes staged throughout the Milwaukee area Monday.

Each was held to honor the men and women who, as Veterans Affairs Chaplain Father Norman Oswald put it, "fought for freedom in the face of oppression and peace in the midst of war."

At Wood National Cemetery, about 300 people held hands and sang "God Bless America" after a parade of veterans and their backers put wreaths at the base of the stone obelisk.

The day's tribute, underscored with patriotic music by the Milwaukee American Legion Band, honored the men and women who served in every U.S. conflict since the Civil War, and America's Hmong allies in Vietnam.

But it paid special tribute to women -- those who served in the military, who kept the factories running during World War II, and who for generations have sent their sons and now their daughters to war.

Three hundred thousand women volunteered for service during World War II, Cathy Bieganski of the AMVETS Auxiliary told the crowd.

"They were airplane mechanics, pilots, flight instructors, secretaries, journalists -- you name it, they did it.

"Every woman who enlisted freed up another man for combat duty," she said. "But World War II was every bit as real and dangerous for women as men. Many left young and fresh-faced, and returned damaged by war."

Bieganski urged listeners not to forget the sacrifices of all who served, saying, "The day the world forgets is the day they will truly have died in vain."

Several hundred spectators gathered mostly near Milwaukee's War Memorial to watch the city's 137th Memorial Day parade. Though some came to honor U.S. veterans, several said they were out simply enjoying the warm day.

The turnout for this year's parade paled in comparison with previous years, said Paul Gionfriddo, 79, a World War II veteran who attended with his wife, Margaret.

Still, the parade holds special significance for him, even as it has changed for younger generations.

"Memorial Day now centers on the family -- the lost ones in the family -- and they don't have to be war casualties," he said. "It's a day of remembrance."

It was unclear Monday how well the White House call for a National Moment of Remembrance was heard in southeastern Wisconsin. Organizers had asked all Americans at 3 p.m. in each time zone to reflect for 60 seconds on those who have fought for the nation's freedom.

No silence appeared to break out at either the American TV Appliance & Furniture Store in Brown Deer or Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa.

Shoppers at the Boston Store in Mayfair were otherwise engaged, walking past racks of summer clothes, some with flag designs. Jewelry displays included flag pins and earrings.

Karen Stinnett, 53, of Edwardsburg, Mich., walked through the mall, wearing a shirt with a flag picture and the words, "Old Glory, est. 1776." She, too, had not heard of the special observance.

"I'm bowling with the tournament," Stinnett said, referring to the Women's International Bowling Congress Queens Tournament.

"I want to ask whoever is officiating the tournament today to, please, have a moment of silence in honor of Memorial Day."

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Dan Benson, Amy Rabideau Silvers and Leita Walker, all of the Journal Sentinel staff, contributed to this report.