Gen. Vang Pao, an iconic figure in the Hmong community and a key U.S. ally during the Vietnam War, died Thursday afternoon in Clovis after spending days in the hospital with pneumonia and a heart problem.
Over 100 people crowded into the outpatient care center at Clovis Community Medical Center to grieve the loss of a beloved leader, who some saw as the George Washington of the Hmong.
"He was a larger-than-life figure for this community," Fresno City Council member Blong Xiong said. "It will take time to mourn this tragic news."
Gen. Vang, 81, had been admitted to Clovis Community on Dec. 26. He apparently was admitted shortly after making his annual appearance at the Hmong International New Year event at the Fresno Fairgrounds. He had lived in Southern California.
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Charlie Waters, a friend and veterans advocate in Fresno, said Gen. Vang was suffering from pneumonia and an ongoing heart problem. He also had battled diabetes and had developed cataracts in the past few years.
Gen. Vang "was a great man and a true warrior," Waters said. "His two dreams were to get his people out of the jungle and to have his warriors buried at Arlington."
News of the death spread quickly Thursday evening.
"The Fresno community is deeply saddened by the loss of Gen. Vang Pao, who was a hero to the Hmong community here in Fresno and all across the country," Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said in a statement. "Gen. Vang Pao was courageous in times of war and a giant in the advocacy of citizenship within the Hmong-American community in times of peace. He displayed the American flag proudly at every community event he held. He was an American patriot of the highest order."
Assembly Member Henry T. Perea said in a statement: "I offer my most heartfelt condolences to the family of General Vang Pao, and to the Hmong community of the Central Valley and beyond. The general was a leader in the truest sense of the word."
Shortly before 8 p.m., the crowd inside the outpatient center parted as Gen. Vang's body was taken out of the hospital. Gen. Vang, dressed in a suit, was rolled on a gurney in view of the crowd to a van to be taken to a Boice Funeral Home in Clovis.
More than 100 people went to see him at a viewing at the funeral home Thursday night.
Funeral arrangements are being made with the hopes that he can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., family spokesman Chai Vang said.
Vang Pao is revered by many as a father figure and leader who helped bring and settle the Hmong community into American life.
But he also has been controversial. Federal authorities in 2007 charged him and 10 others with conspiring to violently overthrow communist Laos. Charges against Gen. Vang were dropped in 2009.
Yet the arrest galvanized Hmong Americans who saw him as a symbol in the fight for public acknowledgment of the Hmong role in the war, and for liberation of those still living in Laotian jungle.
The central San Joaquin Valley has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country. Many Hmong -- some of whom fought beside American soldiers during the Vietnam War -- came here after fleeing Laos.
Conflict paved a path to prominence for Gen. Vang, viewed by some as a king and others as George Washington of the Hmong.
Born in December 1929 to farmers in a Laotian village, he became a teenage translator for French paratroopers fighting the Japanese in Laos during World War II.
He was selected to train at a French officers' school in Vietnam and became a commissioned officer in the French army. Laotian leaders made him a general, even though the Hmong were a small ethnic minority in the country.
In 1961, Gen. Vang was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to lead a secret army of Hmong soldiers against Laotian communists and their North Vietnamese counterparts using routes through Laos to supply their troops.
When the war ended and U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam, communists in Laos persecuted the Hmong. More than 300,000 Laotian refugees -- most of them Hmong -- sought safety, and many began a treacherous journey to reach Thai refugee camps.
Under CIA orders, Gen. Vang was flown from his mountaintop headquarters in May 1975. He lived in Montana before moving to Orange County -- which had a growing Southeast Asian population -- and took a leadership role in the resettlement of his people.
In 1977, Gen. Vang established the Lao Family Community organization to provide social services nationwide. The nonprofit group helps refugees learn English and basic life skills.
That, and wartime memories, helped build a foundation for Gen. Vang's influence here.
Tony Vang, a Fresno Unified School District trustee, remembers Vang Pao visiting his village when he was a boy. The general built his school and sent teachers, he said. Vang Pao also helped pay for Tony Vang -- whose father and three brothers fought and died in the war -- to attend a high school in Hawaii in the early 1970s.
"We lost a great leader, a person who cared deeply about his people and dedicated his entire life to serving them," Vang said.
Over time, however, Gen. Vang lost some credibility for failing to deliver on a promise to return to Laos as a liberator. His reputation also was tarnished by controversy that dogged some organizations related to him or family members.
A few years ago, for example, the nonprofit Vang Pao Foundation in Minnesota agreed to go out of business and pay restitution. That move settled charges that included operating without a board of directors and soliciting money to buy land for low-income housing without using the funds for that purpose.
Then in 2007, federal authorities charged him and others with planning to overthrow the communist government of Laos. He spent six weeks in jail before being released on bail.
His arrest sparked rallies across the country among Hmong who saw it as a betrayal by the U.S. government. It also underscored Gen. Vang's standing in that community.
In late 2009, he said he planned to return to Laos -- saying it was time for reconciliation so that thousands of Hmong trapped in the jungle or stuck in refugee camps could be liberated.
But that trip was quickly canceled after the communist regime announced that he would be executed as a Vietnam War criminal if he returned to Laos.
Gen. Vang reportedly had several wives in Laos, where polygamy was practiced by some Hmong. Family members have said that he has about 20 children.