Gen. Vang Pao has been compared to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and George Washington.
When the general died three weeks ago of pneumonia at age 81, the Hmong community lost an iconic figure regarded as the leader of the Hmong people worldwide.
Plans for his six-day funeral reflect his standing: Up to 40,000 people are expected to attend his memorial in Fresno, including members of the Lao royal family, former CIA operatives and American politicians. His death brought tears to people who never met him and inspired a congressman to push for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The general often is referred to as "father" or "grandfather," said Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, who attempted to explain the devotion accorded Vang.
"I know it's hard for mainstream America to understand, and it's even harder for them to grasp that the Hmong community views him as a figurehead like George Washington, but that's the type of reverence that he has with a strong segment of our community," he said.
Vang is described as a charismatic leader who guided his people through war, flight from Southeast Asia and life in new lands.
Just his presence could turn a losing battle around during the Vietnam War, according to people who served with him.
Vang was a general in the Royal Lao Army in the early 1960s when he teamed with the CIA in the "secret war" against communism in Laos.
Vang led Hmong guerrilla fighters in the jungle, rescuing downed American pilots and protecting U.S. military installations.
His forces saved countless American lives, holding off North Vietnamese soldiers from reaching American troops via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, said Robert Noble, a flight mechanic for Air America, the CIA-run air wing.
Noble, 65 and living in Washington state, sat next to Vang in a helicopter as Americans flew him to battles the Hmong were losing.
"The presence of him on site turned everything around," Noble said. "It was like, 'OK, the shining knight is here.' ... Just his presence could carry a battle."
The Hmong people, who had fled China more than a century ago, still were a small ethnic minority -- many of them uneducated -- in Laos and surrounding countries during the war.
Vang was the first significant leader the Hmong had ever had, said Pao Fang, executive director of the nonprofit organization Lao Family Community in Fresno.
"He was able to bring the Hmong to global attention. He was able to build lasting relations [with the] neighboring countries," he said. "No one had done that in history."
Tens of thousands of Hmong died during the war and after, when the U.S. withdrew from Laos and the country fell to communism. Vang was evacuated to the U.S. and thousands of Hmong with refugee status followed.
His leadership continued here, where he pushed the importance of education and jobs, Fang said.
The general lived in Santa Ana in recent years, but made frequent visits to family in Fresno, home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the country.
Vang founded the first Lao Family Community organization, six of which still are operating around the country, helping refugees learn English and basic life skills.
He helped Hmong people get training through the federal Job Corps program. And he attended celebrations honoring Hmong students who earned their doctorate degrees, telling gatherings of up to 500 people that education was the key to success in the U.S., said Lue Yang, executive director of the Fresno Center for New Americans.