(Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared at The Huffington Post.)
It was rather warm for mid-November in Central Laos as I buzzed the pasture to clear the cows and allow my fragile O-1F to land. The Royal Lao outpost, called “Elephant” was halfway between the Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh and the Ho Chi Mihn Trail strategic junction at Tchepone. The commander, also called “Elephant” provided a useful safe haven and asset if fuel got too low or weather got too bad. On that day we spoke in French of the growing activity of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in the area.
Elephant helped the U.S. effort against the NVA supply lines by our Forward Air Controller (FAC) unit of O-1 aircraft and Khe Sanh and the Special Forces detachment at Lang Vei, a few miles below Khe Sanh. The problem was that the South Vietnamese government insisted he was an enemy. And so it was that several weeks later, when Elephant was over-run and his surviving soldiers and their families fled to the protection of Lang Vei, the South Vietnamese government refused to let them be evacuated via Khe Sanh.
The attack on Elephant was the beginning of the Khe Sanh offensive. Lang Vei was soon over run. I never learned the fate of Elephant and his people. I cursed the betrayal of those who sided with us. I did not know it was to be repeated on a grand scale.
Some seven years later, the U.S. abandoned a far larger and more important indigenous ally, Gen. Vang Pao and his CIA funded “secret army” of Hmong tribesmen fighting the North Vietnamese in the cloud shrouded mountains further north. Established in 1960 with 7000 fighters, it numbered some 40,000 troops at its peak. It is estimated that some 35,000 Hmong died in the 15-year struggle.
Gen. Vang Pao and his people saved dozens of downed American airmen, including a large number of “Raven” FAC in the employ of the CIA. They aided U.S. Special Forces operations and fought with great valor and ferocity. William Colby, the former CIA Director called Vang Pao the biggest hero of the Vietnam War.
And yet at the end of the war, the Hmong were abandoned. Thousands fled to the CIA base at Long Tien seeking rescue flights. Few were evacuated. Many were killed or imprisoned by the Communist regime in Laos or the NVA. Thousands fled to refugee camps in Thailand. There are continuing reports of scattered Hmong still surviving in the Laotian jungles. Some eventually made it to the United States, including Vang Pao. There are some 200,000 Hmong in the United States today, mostly in Minnesota and California.
But the sad fact is that the United States of America did not take care of a faithful and brave ally. We betrayed the Hmong. The only acknowledgement of their service is a plaque honoring the Hmong placed in Arlington National Cemetery in 1997.
America has a chance to make amends. Gen. Vang Pao died on January 6th. His family has requested that he be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The request is under consideration by the Army, but must be made by early February if the Hmong burial traditions are to be followed.
There are those who believe that American “exceptionalism” means that no matter what disaster ensues we should never apologize because our purposes are noble and our motives honorable. They are wrong in the case of General Vang Pao and the Hmong. America owes them an apology. The only acceptable apology is to grant permission for Gen. Vang Pao to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. To fail to do so would be a final insult to a brave man and a valiant people.
Colonel Richard L. (Dick) Klass is a retired USAF colonel. He is a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Academy and the National War College and has two graduate degrees from Oxford University, where he attended as a Rhodes Scholar. He served as a White House Fellow in the Nixon Administration and in the Pentagon in the Carter Administration. He is a veteran of over 200 combat missions as a Forward Air Controller in Vietnam. His decorations include the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit and Purple Heart. He currently sits on the Board of the Council for a Livable World. He is also president of the Veterans Alliance for Security and Democracy Political Action Committee (VETPAC).