Fort McCoy News June 10, 2016

Hmong refugee shares story during AAPI event

BY AIMEE MALONE
Public Affairs Staff

A Hmong refugee shared the story of a journey that included the struggles her Family endured, both in Laos and the United States, during Fort McCoy's observance of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month May 19.

Guest speaker Pafoua Her and her Family came to the United States as political refugees in 1976 when she was 4 years old. Her volunteers for the United Hmong American Association, a nonprofit organization that supports leadership and education for Hmong youth. She also is an adviser to the Hmong18 Council of Wisconsin, which assists Hmong in Wisconsin with educational, economic, cultural, and social development.

Pafoua Her of Kaukauna, Wis., gives her presentation during the Fort McCoy observance of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Month at McCoy's Community Center.
Pafoua Her of Kaukauna, Wis., gives her presentation May during the
Fort McCoy observance of Asian-American and Pacific Islander Month at
McCoy's Community Center.
Photo by Scott T. Sturkol

Her also gives presentations and trains people on Hmong culture and history, inclusion in the workplace, and intercultural communication.

Her's father worked with the U.S. military in Laos during the Vietnam War era, and her Family was among the first Hmong to arrive in the United States.

The CIA and American forces trained and worked with Hmong during the 1960s and 1970s in what was called the "Secret War," part of the Laotian Civil War fought between the communist Pathet Lao, backed by the Viet Cong, and the Kingdom of Laos. The Hmong operated as guerilla fighters in Laos and helped rescue U.S. pilots who went down in the jungle.

When the United States withdrew from the region, the Hmong were offered asylum. Her said her father ran the airport where military planes landed and dropped supplies, and when the last U.S. troops left in 1975, they took her father with them.

"It was at the end of the war the Viet Cong realized who the people were who were helping the U.S., and they (issued) a directive that all Hmong people be annihilated, including children (and) elders," Her said. "So that began our trail of tears."

Her said her Family was one of the few to get out of Laos quickly. While her father was airlifted out of Laos with U.S. troops, a scout was sent to find his Family.

Hmong fleeing the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao had to make their way through the jungle and cross the Mekong River to Thailand before they could be considered safe. Her's Family was told someone would be waiting for them at the river to help them get across.

"We were the lucky ones because we didn't have to swim across in a tube," she said. "We didn't have to swim across with branches, trying to tie our children to ourselves."

Because she was so young when she came to the United States, Her said she remembers only three things about Laos.

"I remember gunfire all the time. Everywhere we went, that's all we heard. I was terrified," she said. "I remember my little brother crying all the time. He was crying because he was so hungry. We were walking through the jungles, trying to make it out, and there was nothing left of the jungle. Nothing left because of Agent Orange, but the Hmong people didn't know about Agent Orange. We called it 'yellow rain.'"

Her's relatives told stories about the "yellow rains" and how, after it fell, all the plants died. Skin would deteriorate and fall off if someone was caught in the chemical spray or touched a wet plant afterward.

"The animals were dead, and there was nothing we could eat, so we would dig roots and eat the roots," Her said.

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She said the third thing she remembers is traveling by night through the jungle, tripping and stumbling over dead bodies in the dark.

"We're like hunted animals. (The Viet Cong) know what the Hmong people look like; they know what we dress like," Her said. "They know who we are. They don't ask questions; they just shoot you."

She said she didn't remember all the details of their trek through the jungle when she was young, but in the United States, she would wake up screaming after dreaming of dead people and body parts chasing her. She said therapy eventually helped her understand and deal with the trauma.

Their challenges did not end with their arrival in the United States, Her said.

"We came from a third-world country," she said. "We came from a country where there was no indoor plumbing, no running water, no electricity. ... And we were dropped into the most-advanced country in the world."

Her's Family initially lived with a sponsor in Houston, but they moved to Wisconsin after her uncle ended up on a dairy farm. They later moved to Wausau, Wis., after deciding dairy farming wasn't for them.

"In Wausau, Wis., we learned a lot of different things about life in America," Her said.

"We learned about cancer. We learned about the judicial system. We learned about racism and prejudice … and most of all, we learned about our nonexistence or nonidentity, because nobody knew who we were."

Her said people would frequently mistake them for Vietnamese or assume they were Laotian when they said they had come from Laos.

"We didn't realize how unpopular the Vietnam War was," she said. "The other thing we didn't realize was that nobody knew who a Hmong person was."

They would try to explain the Hmong had been allies of the United States, but most people hadn't heard of their role in the war. She said some people did not believe they were a separate ethnic group. Her said she remembers being with her father at a grocery store when someone came up and started spitting at him, telling him he wasn't welcome in the United States and to go back to Vietnam.

Her's father also had problems at his job. She said some of his co-workers did not like him because they thought he was Vietnamese. One day while his supervisor was gone, she said, he lost his fingers on one hand when he was told to use a saw without a safety guard.

"At the age of 8, I learned to be an interpreter," Her said. She had to learn how to explain what was happening to her parents, and she said her parents had a lot to worry about. The courts became involved in her father's debilitating injuries. Her cousin was diagnosed with leukemia, and Her said her Family did not initially understand the diagnosis or the treatment. When her cousin returned from treatment, her Family thought he had been tortured because he had lost his hair and had chemotherapy burns.

Because of these events, Her's father decided to improve his English and earn a high-school-equivalency diploma. Her said many people helped them through the process of resettling, including the sponsors who had taken them into their home on arrival in Houston, the doctors who helped them through her cousin's leukemia, and the instructors who helped her father earn his diploma.

Her's father also wanted to help other refugee Families avoid the problems they encountered, so he helped found the first Hmong Mutual Association in Wisconsin.

"That was his legacy," Her said. "'Walking together, embracing diversity, and building legacies' alludes to the relationships we have with other people and what we choose to do with them. … As a refugee … I have learned that's what made me who I am today.

"The Hmong have come a long way," she said. "Everyone's had their own journeys, and everyone's had their own tragedies, but it's what we do with it that defines who we are."

Senior Equal Employment Opportunity Specialist Matthew Burton said he enjoyed learning about Her's history and the Hmong people.

"I think her presentation gave me an opportunity to understand more about the Hmong people and how they helped the U.S. CIA," Burton said. "It gave me some background info about the role they played and their integration and acceptance into (U.S.) society."

For more information about Equal Opportunity observances, call Master Sgt. Freida Carter at 608-388-6153.