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In any tongue, they want to be American; More than 500 Hmong veterans and their spouses showed up at a St. Paul center on the first day they could apply for U.S. citizenship.

BY: Kimberly Hayes Taylor; Staff Writer - June 29, 2000, Thursday

Each time the bombing got too close to her Laotian village, Ka Xiong gathered her children and hid them in mountain caves or tiny huts she built in the jungle.

Her husband, Chue Blong Her, was away fighting the secret war in Laos for the CIA during the Vietnam War. For 15 years, she fended for herself and kept her children alive. Sometimes she was hungry. Countless times she abandoned all she owned. She could never rest.

Completing an application for United States citizenship Wednesday was a small consolation for Xiong, but she joined more than 500 Hmong veterans and their wives at the Lao Family Community Center in St. Paul to fulfill a dream and collect on an old promise of citizenship made by the U.S. government.

"When we lived in Laos, we often had no shoes," said Xiong, 70, of Blaine. "For days, we walked through the jungle barefoot, trying to find somewhere to hide. When soldiers came to our village, we cooked for them. This is not enough to pay for all the pain we suffered."

She said she often cried because her English was not good enough to pass the citizenship test. She accompanied Hmong veterans during trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress.

This will help.

On May 26, Congress passed a law easing the naturalization process for Xiong and up to 45,000 Hmong and Lao veterans and their spouses. The law recognizes the achievements of veterans who served between Feb. 28, 1961, and Sept. 18, 1978, and waives normal English-language requirements for citizenship. An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people are expected to apply in Minnesota.

"I want to be able to vote," she said. "Wherever I go, I want to be a proud U.S. citizen."

Tears filled Pajdee Thao's eyes as she listened to her mother.

Thao, 33, also of Blaine, has her own painful memories of the war and nearly three years in a refugee camp.

As a child, she felt fortunate if she saw her father once a year.

"Sometimes, you want to see the role model of your father," Thao said. "The only time I saw him, he had on a uniform."

The war touched all members of her family. Her father fought. Her uncle, Kou Xiong, was a pilot. Her brother, Cheng Her, was a child soldier. The men live in California now, but plan to travel to the Twin Cities to complete applications, she said.

Meng Wang Vang, 55, of St. Paul, began fighting when he was 14.

"Some were younger than me," he said. "They were 10, 11, 12. We gave all we had to the American cause."

Vang has been a citizen for 10 years. Wednesday he coordinated volunteers at the center to help complete applications.

Vang smiled as he pointed to others in the room.

Old men held manila folders. Women carried grandchildren strapped to their backs and chests. Dozens of people sitting at tables were interviewed. Others waited for their turn.

"I'm happy that they are becoming U.S. citizens," he said. "They are the older generation. This will help them so much.".

Key facts: Veterans sought

The Minnesota chapter of the Lao Veterans of America Inc. is seeking Hmong and Lao veterans. War veterans, their spouses and widows are eligible to become U.S. citizens. An office is open 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 naturalization application and fingerprinting.

- For more information: Call Cherzong Vang, president of the Minnesota chapter of Lao Veterans of America, 651-774-3479 or call the Lao Family Community Center, at 651-221-0069.