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Minnesota National Guard
We've been through too much fighting

Xang Yang tied a simple string around her grandson's neck before he left St Paul for Iraq Then she whispered a private blessing, asking her ancestors to protect him during his service overseas with the Minnesota National Guard "I told him to go, but be careful and do justice over there," she said "High morals and good ethics will protect you"

When Dominic Thao returns later this summer, his grandmother plans to greet him with another blessing

"I am going to hug him and say: That's enough," Yang said "Take care of yourself and have a peaceful life We've been through too much fighting, too much war and too many struggles"

For three generations, war has hounded Xang Yang

Her husband fought alongside French troops when Japan invaded her native Laos in the 1940s A generation later, her oldest son, Xiong (John), used information from Hmong operatives to identify bombing targets for CIA leaders during the Vietnam War

"Throughout my life, I have been a refugee and escaped war in so many places," Yang said "I really want peace Unfortunately, war keeps chasing us and peace never prevails for long"

Today Yang, the 80-year-old matriarch of one of the most successful Hmong-American families in the Twin Cities, has much to be proud of Although she was unable to go to school herself, there are more than a dozen Ivy League diplomas among her eight surviving children, 40 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren

That progeny includes her granddaughter Mee Moua, a state senator from St Paul and the nation's first Hmong-American state legislator; grandson David Thao of Woodbury, a plastic surgeon; son Neal Thao, a former St Paul school board member; son Xoua Thao, a Cottage Grove family physician; and granddaughter Pakou Hang, who's running to become the first Hmong-American on the St Paul City Council

Although she smiles while baby-sitting the youngest ones, Yang frets about Dominic, a 28-year-old private who's carrying on his family's tradition of military service

"It's quite scary," she said, as her son Neal translated for her while seated around the dining room table at Cedarhurst, the historic Cottage Grove mansion where she lives Her family owns the Civil War-era house and her youngest son, True Thao, manages it as a catering venue

"My husband and oldest son had no choice; we lived in a country where war kept happening," she said "We had to take sides and fight because the other side was trying to dominate"

Yang can still recall the helicopters near her jungle home in Laos, evacuating the dead and wounded She recalls running with babies in arms, leaving property and livestock behind as their houses burned They came to this country in the mid-1970s

Now Dominic, 10 years removed from his St Paul Central High School graduation and laid off from a communication sales job, is wearing the uniform of a different nation

He was supposed to have been home by now, but he's among the more than 2,600 Minnesota troops serving out the final months of a yearlong tour that was extended 125 days

"It was his choice to fight and serve the country, but honestly I don't like it," his grandmother said

'Military is good for him'

Wearing a camouflage Army shirt that Dominic gave him, Xiong (John) Thao leaned on one of the chrome washers and driers in his laundry at 7th and Hope on St Paul's East Side

"War can create opportunity," he said "Or it can create disaster"

From 1962 to 1975, John rose from teenage Soldier to trusted captain and liaison officer between Hmong troops and CIA leaders in Laos He parachuted a dozen times, survived two plane crashes and learned to fire howitzer shells

"We didn't know until later it was a secret war," he said

John congratulated Dominic when his nephew told him that he was joining the National Guard

"I think it's a good experience and I'm proud he wants to be a protector of his country," said John, 57, of Woodbury "If you really like your country, you have to discipline yourself and do something, no matter how tough it is"

John himself has studied and worked as a janitor, chef and hotel manager, earning master's degrees along the way in finance and human resources He followed his siblings to St Paul with his parents 10 years ago after living in Providence, RI and Milwaukee

Unlike the Vietnam War, which he considered a battle for basic human rights such as free speech, John questions the war in Iraq

"Vietnam was a very right cause; in Iraq, I'm not so sure it was necessary to resort to guns," he said "America is a superpower with more knowledge, money and technology than anyone, and other approaches would have been cheaper," such as diplomatic and financial pressure on Iraq

"September 11th was one incident and you don't challenge your future for that," he said

Nevertheless, he exudes pride in his nephew's service

"This is a good thing for him to challenge himself," John said "He is motivating himself and learning good principles of discipline, motivation, honor and respect"

E-mail from Iraq

In a recent e-mail interview, Dominic Thao wrote from Iraq: "I don't feel a need of appreciation from the American public any more than a schoolteacher, medical person or firefighter should get"

He said he joined the Guard a few years ago when his life "was at a lull," and that the troops were deeply disappointed when their tours were extended He wants to get back home to finish college, just as others want to return to families and jobs

"I am indifferent to our deployment in Iraq," he said "Honestly, the nature of the conflict is still very ambiguous"

Dominic has heard all the comparisons between Iraq and the war his Uncle John found himself in 40 years ago

"I only see the Vietnam War as an effort that delayed the rise of Communist domination in Southeast Asia," he said In a weird way, though, he's thankful for the US role in Vietnam and Laos

"Though I personally think it should not have happened based on the historical facts," he said, "I am grateful the US participated in the conflict, which allowed my family an opportunity to come to the US"

Curt Brown "¢ 651-298-1542 "¢ curtbrown@startribune.com
May 16, 2007
Source: http://www.startribune.com

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