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Lao-Hmong veterans among those honored for service during Vietnam War
Four Lao-Hmong veterans and the surviving son of a fifth were among 76 Vietnam-era veterans honored at a ceremony hosted by U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter on Friday at Red Rocks Community College.
One after another, an officer read off their names, their branch of the military and the years they wore the uniform, and then Perlmutter handed them a Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin and a certificate to honor their service. Some saluted, some just nodded, but they all stood for a moment with the pride that eluded many veterans when they returned home from America’s most fraught conflict, one that tore the nation apart and cast a pall over the men and women who fought during the war.
For the Laotian members of the Hmong tribe, known as the Lao-Hmong — it means “free people” — who served with the United States Special Guerrilla Unit in Laos from 1960 until the United States withdrew from South Vietnam in 1975, it was a special honor for their service in a war that’s only been dimly recognized.
Earlier this year, Perlmutter invited all Vietnam-era veterans in Colorado and their survivors to apply for the honor, part of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration. At first, his office had anticipated thanking the veterans at a single ceremony on Vietnam Veterans Day, an annual celebration on March 29, but the response has been so high that the Arvada Democrat has scheduled seven additional ceremonies running through August, and there could be more to come.
“I thank all of you for your service, for your patience with our country for this recognition,” Perlmutter said after all 76 veterans had been recognized. “It’s long overdue, and I know that everybody would love to thank you right now.” He urged the rest of those in attendance — family members and community leaders — to rise to their feet and applaud, which they did for more than a minute.
Then, with an unapologetic grin and a glance at staffers, Perlmutter said, “If you have some buddies who haven’t signed up for this, go ahead and tell them — I’ll probably get in trouble for this too — but we can continue to make these presentations for so many who didn’t get any recognition or got something even worse when they came home. And the little bit that this does, I know, doesn’t fill a lot of the hole that some of you feel when you came home and for a long time. But it’s at least a token of this country’s appreciation for your service.”
A spokeswoman for Perlmutter’s congressional office said nearly 700 veterans from across the state have been in contact to arrange to take part in the ceremonies. They’re all scheduled for 9:30-11:30 a.m. at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood. The remaining dates are June 1, July 6, July 21, Aug. 3 and Aug. 17.
The commemoration was established in 2007 by an Act of Congress and a presidential proclamation and officially kicked off with a presidential event at the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial on May 28, 2012. It’s scheduled to run through Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2025. This year, more than 100 events commemorating Vietnam Veterans Day on March 29 took place in Colorado, and more than 8,000 were planned nationwide.
The pins can be awarded posthumously to survivors, and the commemoration doesn’t distinguish between veterans who served in-country, in-theater or who were stationed elsewhere.
Peterson, who retired a dozen years ago after a career working sheet metal for the railroad — first the Denver & Rio Grande, then the Southern Pacific, then the Union Pacific — said he spends some time at the American Legion but didn’t know any buddies from the service at the ceremony.
“It does bring back a lot of memories — some good, some bad, but it made me grow up quick and made me a different person,” he said.
Noting that he lives in Arvada, in Perlmutter’s district, Peterson said he’s glad the congressman had organized the ceremonies and sought out veterans.
“It’s good for him and good for the people he serves,” he said. “He’s doing a great benefit and a favor.”
Chongee Thao was one of the Lao-Hmong veterans who received recognition for his service, including his participation with the United States Special Guerrilla Unit in Laos starting in 1961.
According to the military, the period covering the Vietnam War began in Nov. 1, 1955, when the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam was officially designated, and ended on May 15, 1975, when the battle that followed the seizure of the SS Mayaguez was concluded. The last U.S. personnel evacuated from Vietnam in April 1975. According to VA estimates, there are 7 million Vietnam veterans alive today, and there are 9 million surviving families of veterans who have died.
James L. Peterson, 72, who served in the Army from 1965 to 1968, said after he received the pin Friday that he was glad he’d come to the ceremony.
“It’s interesting. There’s a lot about it I forgot, but this brings back a lot of memories,” Peterson told The Colorado Statesman, recalling that he’d deployed to Vietnam right in the middle of the Tet Offensive, stationed at Dong Ba Thin, an Army base just north of Cam Ranh Bay. “I think it’s great for them to do this now.”
While Vietnam-era veterans have been embraced by the country for some time, he recalled that it wasn’t that way at the height of the war.
“Of course, when I came in, I was alone at the airport, got a taxi and went home. That was it,” he said, and then smiled. “I got a steak dinner when I come in back in the United States.”
But after the U.S. military left the region, Lao-Hmong community leader Yang Chee told The Statesman, Thao was among a large number of Lao-Hmong imprisoned because he had fought with the Americans.
“He served for 19 years as a prisoner,” said Chee, who helped organized the participation of the Lao-Hmong at Friday’s ceremony. “He was a POW for 19 years. After the United States left, the communist forces arrested them and sent them to prison.”
Pointing to a grim photograph of nine Lao-Hmong POWs on display in the lobby outside the ceremony, Chee picked out Thao and then pointed to another man in the photo and then said, “All of them are dead, except for this one and this one, they’re all gone now. They’re all dead.”
Then he pointed to another man in the photo — none of them are smiling — and said, “This is my uncle, who was a colonel. He died in prison. They dragged him out to display how terrible America was. These were the ones who served with America. They tortured them on behalf of America.”
The recognition Thao and his fellow Lao-Hmong were about to receive was particularly meaningful, he added, because the first time Americans had publicly celebrated their contribution to the war had taken place just a few miles away more than 20 years earlier.
“The Hmong contribution was recognized in 1995 officially in Golden, Colorado, for the first time ever,” Chee said, a triumphant smile on his face. “In Golden, Colorado. Congressman Dan Schaefer was the one force who went after everything to get the Hmong recognized for what they did for America and the free world,” he said. “We had roughly 5,000 people coming from across the country. American military and elected officials from all over came to make that day a special day recognizing the Hmong and Laotians’ contribution to America.”
The day was July 22, 1995, and the Golden City Council had established Lao-Hmong Recognition Day to recognize the bravery, sacrifice, and loyalty to the United States exhibited by the Lao-Hmong. Golden officials, Chee said, had taken the step largely at the urging of Schaefer, the Lakewood Republican who represented the 6th Congressional District for seven terms.
Since then, he noted, the members of Congress who have represented Golden — Tom Tancredo, then Bob Beauprez after redistricting landed the city in the new 7th Congressional District, and Ed Perlmutter to this day — have carried a torch for the cause.
“All those congressmen were empathetic, they pushed so hard for the United States government to recognize us,” Chee said, his smile growing broader. “In 2001, the United States passed a law, House Concurrent Resolution 88, making July 22 a national recognition day.”
Tancredo sponsored that resolution, which was passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate. And two years ago, Perlmutter sponsored another resolution that reaffirms the day, which is also celebrated across the country by state and local governments.
“Historically, the Lao-Hmong people were one of our country’s most loyal allies,” Perlmutter said in a statement introducing the 2015 resolution. “During the Vietnam War, they fought bravely alongside U.S. soldiers. Many emigrated to the U.S. and now proudly call this country their home. We are grateful for their service and sacrifice to our nation.”
An estimated 3,000 Lao-Hmong people live in Colorado, and roughly 180,000 live in the United States, concentrated in Wisconsin, Minnesota, California and parts of North Carolina. Several million live in China, Thailand and Laos.
In order to be recognized at a ceremony, a veteran or veteran’s family member must fill out an application and submit an official certificate of release or discharge from active duty — commonly known as the DD-214 — to Perlmutter’s office. Those without the form handy can contact his office for assistance. Perlmutter’s office can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (303) 274-7944.
Content originally produced by the Colorado Statesman on April 13, 2017.