He was born in the Laotian jungle in 1929 and died Jan. 6 in suburban Clovis, Calif. Along the way, General Vang Pao, son of Hmong farmers, became a key, if controversial, American ally and the symbolic father of a persecuted people.
Vang Pao, who was 81, is best known for his role in America's "secret war," a covert, CIA-backed campaign against Laos' Viet Cong-aligned leaders during the Vietnam War. In the lead-up to war, North Vietnamese forces cut tracks through the Laotian jungle, creating the supply route now known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Laos was also at war, split between the communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao forces. The Americans teamed up with the latter, working with Vang Pao and a band of guerrilla fighters to disrupt the North's network of trails. For Vang Pao's 15-year fight against Southeast Asia's communists, former CIA chief William Colby once called him "the biggest hero of the Vietnam War."
But Vang Pao's relationship with the U.S. as with his homeland was always complicated. In 2007, after a lengthy investigation known as Operation Tarnished Eagle, the ex-CIA operative was arrested for plotting to overthrow the Laotian government. He was charged under the U.S. Neutrality Act, a security clause that prohibits actions on American soil against foreign governments with whom Washington is at peace. Federal prosecutors alleged Vang Pao, then 77, and several colleagues were funding guerrilla fighters living in Laos. Vang Pao didn't deny the charge but countered that the CIA was well aware of his plans to send American weapons to his former comrades in arms. The case against him, which drew outrage, was later dropped.
It was not the first time the general felt he had been slighted by Washington. In 1975, after Saigon fell, Vang Pao and his fighters were all but abandoned. Thousands were killed, and tens of thousands took to the hills or traveled overland to camps in neighboring Thailand. Some languish there still. Vang Pao was among the 100,000 or so Hmong who eventually made it to the U.S., where they were "resettled," primarily in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin. But America's erstwhile allies were not welcomed as heroes far from it. The government did not officially acknowledge Hmong fighters until 1997. That year, Washington recognized their heroism with a small copper plaque. Vang Pao and some 3,000 veterans attended the ceremony.
Vang Pao's exile in America was spent advocating for Hmong refugees and bolstering the resistance movement in Laos. He helped found the United Lao National Liberation Front and spoke out against the forced repatriation of Hmong refugees living in Thai camps. At 80, he vowed to return to Laos to help broker peace between his people and the country's communist leaders; those leaders said they'd execute him if he tried. Vang Pao, like so many of the Hmong, never got to go home.
This text originally appeared in the Jan. 24, 2011 issue of TIME magazine.
Next Lana Peters