In the language of the Hmong people, there is no word for 'veteran.'
'Back home, we don't consider veterans or not veterans,' said Yang Chee, who grew up in Laos in Southeast Asia.
'We are all veterans,' he said. 'We have fought all our lives.'
For centuries, the mountainous, landlocked homeland of the Hmong has served as a battleground for warring nations. In the 1960s and '70s, the United States allied with the Hmong in covert operations in Laos against the communist North Vietnamese in an effort often called the 'secret war.'
When the United States pulled out, many Hmong were captured or killed.
Villages were burned and families tortured as casualties rose to tens of thousands.
For the past 25 years, as Hmong refugees have immigrated to the U.S., they have continued to fight a different war: a battle to tell their story and earn recognition for their contributions.
It's a fight the veterans are finally beginning to win.
On Saturday, more than 90 Hmong soldiers who now live in the United States will gather in Denver. Some of them can no longer walk; some will stand in bodies still embedded with shrapnel. Nearly all of them were wounded and taken as prisoners of war while fighting in support of the American forces.
During the ceremony, top-ranking officials from the U.S. military, including eight generals and a host of Congress members, will for the first time officially recognize the accomplishments of the members of the Lao-Hmong Special Guerrilla Units. Each of the men and women will receive the Vietnam Veterans National Medal.
For Chee, the president of the nonprofit Westminster-based Lao-Hmong American Coalition, it's a recognition based on individual accolades that will reach much further.
'We felt that it is a responsibility to make it known to the American public about our contribution to protect our freedom in Laos, but at the same time that we were defending the U.S. interest and U.S. policy in Southeast Asia for all those years,' Chee said.
Air Force Capt. Fred Platt, who flew in the covert Ravens air support group during the war, puts things a bit more bluntly.
'These people fought and died for the U.S. and believed our promises,' Platt said. 'And we abandoned them.'
Behind the faces of each of the soldiers expected at the ceremony are stories of long-hidden heroism. There are tales of Hmong guerrillas rescuing downed American pilots; stories of Special Guerrilla Units turning away North Vietnamese troops, saving the lives of American forces nearby.
'There were so many incredible acts of bravery by these people,' said Platt, who recalls a storied tale of downed Americans who were rescued by Hmong soldiers.
'They lost 65 of their people to try and save two Americans,' he said. 'That's the kind of act these guys performed on a regular basis.'
They were actions, Chee said, based on an allegiance that never wavered.
U.S. 'like a god'
'They thought it was their sole responsibility to defend their family, their territory, and particularly people believed that the U.S. was there like a god, that America was the god country and it was our responsibility to defend America. That's how people felt during that time,' Chee said.
Despite the risks and hospitality the Hmong people gave the Americans in Laos, the friendship often disappeared when the tables turned.
'What hurt them the most was when the (Hmong soldiers) came to the U.S. and expected they would go to (the U.S. officers' homes) and they would open their arms the same way,' Chee said. 'They acted like they didn't even know us.'
As the Recognition Day ceremony begins, the honorees will be looking toward the mountains.
'They are a mountain people, and we are a mountain people,' said Col. Frank Bales, the master of ceremonies for the event. 'The mountains are part of our lives.'
Fifth such event
The event is the fifth such Lao-Hmong Recognition Day in Colorado. Since the first event in 1995, Chee said, the idea has spread to other states, based on the Colorado model.
Recognition is also arriving in another form. On May 26, a law was passed easing the requirements for Hmong seeking to become American citizens.
'We thought we would never be recognized by the United States,' Chee said.
Saturday's event will include youth groups, a band and speeches from dignitaries, along with a POW-MIA ceremony.
'This ceremony will be a partial fulfillment and thanks to the living and the dead,' said Gen. Sal Villano, the event's chairman. 'The Hmong were so important to the war effort. If we ever go to war again, I want the Hmong to be by my side.'
The public is welcome at the ceremony, which begins at 9 a.m. at Shaw Heights Middle School, 8780 Circle Drive, near West 88th Avenue and Lowell Boulevard.
'A lot of people don't even know this happened; this was all a secret,' said Col. Bill Connolly. 'This is a chance for the public to come and hear about a big secret.'
It's a secret that will inevitably continue to seep into the open, said Staff Sgt. Wes Love, who spends much of his time teaching English to Hmong refugees and has learned in return.
'We have to remember the meaning of the word 'Hmong,'' he said. 'The word 'Hmong' means 'free.'' GRAPHIC: PHOTO:The Denver Post/Bill Ross Staff Sgt. Wes Love, left, Gen. Sal Villano, center, and Col. Frank Bales look at papers as they plan for Saturday's Lao-Hmong Recognition Day ceremony.