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Hmong veteran's memorial dedication...

Hmong veteran's memorial

Hmong veteran's memorial dedication postponed

Katherine Ellis, USA TODAY NETWORK

(Photo: Courtesy of the Randolph Rose Collection)

WAUSAU - The unveiling of a local Hmong Vietnam War Veteran’s Memorial is being postponed for a second time as its organizers grapple with the thorny question of whose names should be etched on the monument's base.

The memorial is intended to honor local veterans who fought in the Secret War in Vietnam before resettling in Marathon County. It will feature a bronze sculpture of two Hmong soldiers supporting an American pilot atop a marble base further detailing the Hmong veterans' story. The entire $240,000 memorial, paid for through donations, weighs more than 20 tons and was supposed to be dedicated in front of the Marathon County Courthouse on June 25.

It was originally supposed to be unveiled while still partially incomplete — missing a panel on the base that will bear the names of Hmong and Lao veterans who were involved in the war — but many of the memorial's donors were veterans and felt it was important the names were all there at the dedication ceremony.

That final panel can’t be completed until a committee that organized the effort confronts a complex question: with few written records remaining from the war and so many Hmong involved in undocumented and unconventional warfare, how can they precisely define what constitutes a veteran?

Mort McBain, retired Marathon County administrator and a Vietnam veteran himself is on the committee that, with several state chapters of Hmong/Lao veterans, is working out the differences between veterans. “We wanted it to be a 100 percent accurate list,” he said.

During the Vietnam War, Hmong and Lao soldiers supported the CIA’s efforts in Laos and were tasked with a variety of duties. From rescuing downed pilots to helping American soldiers navigate Southeast Asian jungles, their contributions are often forgotten in the retelling of American history. Hmong veteran's memorial

 (Photo: Courtesy of the Randolph Rose Collection)

The Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act of 2000 entitled those who served in Laos and supported the U.S. forces during the Vietnam War to become fully naturalized U.S. Citizens, but also said they wouldn’t receive veteran benefits or monetary reparations for their contributions or service.

Peter Yang, former director of Wausau's Hmong American Center, said the unconventional nature of the war complicates the task of verifying who served. Many soldiers fought as guerrillas and the loss of records as they and their families fled Laos to Thailand to escape persecution by the communist Vietnamese make documenting involvement all but impossible.

“There was a lack of personnel to serve in different roles,” he said, “And a lack of process. Some people had the duties and responsibilities of a teacher or nurse, but they were called ‘soldiers’ and were paid through military funding. So are they veterans? It’s not so easy to define.”

Tong Blia Xiong, a member of the planning committee and veteran of the war, defines a veteran as someone who carried a gun, was part of the fighting, wore a uniform and can be identified with other soldiers.

A fair number of the veterans who made Marathon County their home meet those criteria and went through basic training. But other soldiers were not formally trained by the CIA; they were just handed rifles and risked their lives for the United States. They also would like some recognition for their contributions to the war.

On Friday, organizers sent Christine Hentges of The Tribute Companies, which constructed the memorial, a finalized list of 161 local veterans whose names should be engraved. It will take until the end of the month to finish the engraving, after which they will ship the 20-ton colossal structure to Wisconsin.

This is the second time the monument has been postponed and committee members Kham T. Yang, Peter Yang,  McBain, Yee Leng Xiong and Tong Blia Yang still hope to dedicate it in the fall, potentially in October, when all arrangements can be made for the unveiling and the event can still be held outdoors. It’s imperative to the committee and the veterans that the monument is dedicated this year.

“Lots of people died because of the war,” said Xiong. “Since we came here, some who fought already died without recognition. We have to finish the monument to honor them. In 200 or 300 hundred years, their grandkids’ kids can come and recognize them in Marathon County. We need to preserve the history.”