Ying Vang was just a small boy when Gen. Vang Pao sent a helicopter to rescue his family from the jungles of Laos. He remembers his parents putting their fingers to their lips and saying "Shhh" because North Vietnamese soldiers were nearby. The women and children ran to the helicopter, which airlifted them to safety. Ying Vang's father stayed behind with the rest of the men to fight.
A couple of years later, Vang Pao came to visit Ying Vang's school. Despite the chaos, the Hmong general had ordered schools to be built in remote locations of the Laotian jungle. Now he was coming to personally deliver supplies. Ying Vang was in second grade and remembers Vang Pao handing each student a case of paper, pencils and textbooks.
Ying Vang recalls the general telling the students, "You are the future leaders. Learn as much as you can. We're giving you the resources. Use it wisely."
Ying Vang immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, when he was almost 14. Now 42, he's a counselor at Memorial High school and is pursuing a Ph.D. in education at the UW-Madison. Of Gen. Vang Pao, he says, "He's everything to me."
But Vang Pao, who commanded an army of 30,000 Hmong soldiers who fought for the U.S. in the Vietnam War, is a controversial figure. UW-Madison historian Alfred McCoy and others have accused the general of summarily executing prisoners and his own soldiers, conscripting child soldiers and selling opium, which was turned into heroin. As a result, questions have been raised about the Madison school board's recent decision to name a new elementary school on the far west side after Gen. Vang Pao.
Madison's Hmong population, however, vehemently refutes the allegations against Gen. Vang Pao.
Shwaw Vang, who recently retired from the Madison school board, has asked local Hmong veterans if the general ever executed Hmong soldiers. "I can't find anybody who says, 'Yeah, that occurred,'" he says. The Hmong revere Gen. Vang Pao as a hero.
"This is a man who commanded the respect of his soldiers," says Shwaw Vang. "But more importantly, he commanded the respect of the Hmong community for what he did."
The Hmong people, who live in the mountainous regions of Laos and elsewhere in southeast Asia, were a historically oppressed minority. They were overtaxed by the Laotian government, which refused to build schools for their children. If they ventured into the wrong village, the Hmong were called names and often beaten.
Gen. Vang Pao changed all that, says Shwaw Vang. He convinced the Laotian government to offer more equality to the Hmong. And he gave the Hmong a sense of pride.
"He taught me I don't have to stand still and take that abuse," says Shwaw Vang. "He freed us as a people. To me, he is the embodiment of everything we hold dear as Americans - setting people free and empowering us."
After the war, when hundreds of thousands of Hmong immigrated to the U.S., Gen. Vang Pao helped them resettle. He started Lao Family, the first group to help Hmong refugees learn English and find jobs. According to Shwaw Vang, he counseled the Hmong to become American citizens, telling them, "You must assimilate to survive."
Both Ying Vang and Shwaw Vang get emotional when they hear McCoy and others attack the general. They note that McCoy only spent two weeks in Laos during the Vietnam War, and in his 1972 book, The Politics of Heroin of Southeast Asia, referred to the Hmong people as "meo."
"That's a very derogatory word," says Shwaw Vang. "It's the equivalent of the N-word." He thinks it shows that McCoy spoke only to people critical of the general, since no Hmong would refer to himself that way. "The research he did was very shallow." (At the time, this word appeared commonly in press accounts and was not recognized as a slur. McCoy deleted it from later editions.)
They don't deny that Gen. Vang Pao used child soldiers or sold opium. But they note that the Hmong had always grown opium, which was used as medicine, and had no idea how to turn it into heroin.
And the child soldiers, says Shwaw Vang, "were wearing U.S. Army uniforms and carrying M-16s. It was not the Hmong people who came to America to seek help, it was the Americans who came to Laos. It was the Americans who taught us how to shoot, how to kill."
Beu Xiong, a social worker with Dane County, says Gen. Vang Pao directed the American pilots to drop food to the Hmong refugees hiding out in the jungle. "Otherwise, we wouldn't be here."
Later Xiong attended one of the general's schools and says Vang Pao sent money and rice to the students. "If it was not for him," Xiong says, with tears in his eyes, "I would not be who I am today."