From war in the jungles of Laos to Frogtown: Minn. dentist, business leader Kou Vang tells his story
ST. PAUL — Five-year-old Evan Moua sat wide-eyed and terrified in the dentist chair Tuesday in St. Paul. His sister had come back from her appointment missing teeth and he was sure the same thing was about to happen to him.
Dr. Kou Vang entered the examination room of his Frogtown office, switched smoothly from English to Hmong, and spoke to Evan in a calm, reassuring voice. It’s a method he has perfected over the past 20 years, practiced especially for patients from Laos who are skeptical of dentistry because their culture teaches that toothaches are caused by unhappy ancestors.
Vang, 63, didn’t get around to dentistry until he was in his 40s. He was told he was the first Hmong to go into dentistry in Minnesota, and probably the first grandfather to graduate from his program.
That’s because Vang’s life took him the long way, through war, prison camp, destitution, immigration and a lot of hard work.
This month, Vang retired from the Minnesota Air National Guard as a lieutenant colonel during a ceremony attended by several local dignitaries. He is asked to share his story wherever he goes. On Tuesday, he shared it with the Pioneer Press.WORKING FOR THE CIA
Vang was born in 1955 in the jungles of eastern Laos, the third oldest of 15 children. A civil war was gaining traction between the Laotian government and communist forces backed by North Vietnam.
By the time Vang was in elementary school, he hadn’t lived in one place longer than a few years because of the fighting.
“You attend school for maybe two or three years and then you move,” he said. “You were always on the move.”
Although the United States was never officially at war with Laos, the CIA was there, training, equipping and supporting local hill tribes to fight the communists. One of those Hmong was Vang’s father, who became a bodyguard for the famous Gen. Vang Pao.
The CIA recruited Vang, then 14, and others who could speak broken English to be their eyes and ears on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a military supply route run by the Communist Party.
“We had to report back to them and say the Viet Cong is coming, so they can relay it to the airplanes,” he said.
Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos in an attempt to stop communism, making it the most heavily bombed country in history relative to the size of its population.
How did Vang handle such a perilous job, being so young? He said in war time, it’s normal.
“You did not have a choice. You either do, or die,” he said.CAPTURE AND ESCAPE
Vang did this for about four years until, one day, he and his friends were captured by a North Vietnamese patrol and kept as prisoners for a month. They were locked in huts and taken out only to be questioned and beaten. They survived by eating bugs and drinking water that reeked of urine, Vang said.
One night, a powerful storm knocked out the camp’s generators, plunging the jungle into darkness and giving Vang and his friends a chance to escape. Tracked by dogs, the boys ran frantically through the thick vegetation. Along the way, they got separated. Three of them never returned.
These are the memories that haunt Vang’s dreams, still bring the goosebumps and make the tears fall down his face, he said.THEY THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD
Back at the CIA military post, Vang refused to go back out on the trail. He was reassigned as an air traffic controller at Long Cheng, the busiest airport in Laos during the Vietnam War.
At age 17, he married Song Ly and had a daughter, Pagnia. By this time, things were going poorly for the U.S. in Vietnam, and in 1975, the CIA decided to pull out.
Once the North Vietnamese army heard the news, they descended in force on the base.
“They were shooting at the airport,” Vang said. “They were moving in and everybody was running to get on the planes.”
Song Ly and Pagnia made it onto a departing C-130, but Vang was left behind.
“I thought I would probably never see my family again,” he said. “My wife and my daughter thought I was dead.”
Vang would have to figure out by himself how to evade the army, get across the Mekong River and locate his family in Thailand.
It is estimated that about a third of the Hmong population in Laos fled to Thailand. About 130,000 made their way to the United States.REUNITED AND RESCUED
In the meantime, Vang’s wife and 1-year-old daughter were settled in a refugee camp. Every day, Song Ly would get up, dress herself and her daughter and go to the area where the buses brought new refugees. There she would wait, wondering if she would ever see her husband again.
It took about a month for Vang to escape, slipping through the communists by pretending to be a student and hiding his military ID in his sock. He stepped off the bus in the refugee camp and into his wife’s arms.
“She was so happy. I was so happy. We were holding each other and crying,” he said. They recently celebrated their 46th anniversary.
The refugee camp did what it could, but there were so many fleeing the conflict that resources were scarce and the Vangs often went hungry. They lived inside the fenced camp for a year, had a baby boy named Pete and left in 1976 when they were sponsored by Zion Lutheran Church in Belvidere, Ill.
Though the Hmong played a crucial role in the CIA’s “Secret War,” the majority were at first deemed “too primitive” to be given asylum in the United States, according to the Minnesota History Center. Only Gen. Vang Pao, his closest associates and others employed directly by the U.S. government were allowed into the U.S.
“We were very fortunate that the United States just took us into their arms,” Vang said.ICE CREAM AND VEGGIES?
Adjusting to a foreign culture is never easy. For the Vangs, who didn’t hear from other family members for about two years, emotions ranged from terrible homesickness to humorous incidents like the first time they saw snow and thought it was ashes from a fire, something they were used to seeing in Laos.
And then there’s the time Song Ly mistook a bucket of vanilla ice cream for lard.
“My wife was cooking the veggies. She scooped the ice cream into the pans. There was no grease! The veggies tasted sweet. We just did not know why,” he said, laughing.
Vang’s first job in the U.S. was working for $2.30 an hour as a janitor. Eventually, he had three jobs to make ends meet as his family increased by four children: two girls, Pachee and Pahoua, and two boys, John and David.
Over the next 10 years, his family members joined him in the U.S., many of them congregating in the Twin Cities.
Thanks to a group of Hmong immigrants who formed a foundation and rallied for the rescue of those left behind, Minnesota, and especially the Twin Cities, supported the second-largest Hmong population in the U.S., according to the Minnesota History Center. Of the state’s total Hmong population, 97 percent (64,422) resided in the Twin Cities area — the densest concentration anywhere in the nation.
In 1986, the Vangs packed up and moved to St. Paul to join them.
“Minnesota made us feel so welcome,” Vang said.GOING TO SCHOOL
By this time, Vang had been a janitor, an assembly line worker, an upholsterer, a real estate agent and an insurance agent. He would work from early morning until midnight and on the weekends. He decided he did not want to do this for another 10 years, so he got his GED at age 31 and enrolled at Lakewood Community College (now Century College) to become a dentist.
“I studied no less than 15 hours a day for 10 years,” he said. “I rode bus No. 16 every day to college.”
Learning medical terms in English was hard, and many of them were in Latin, he said.
“I would bring a tape recorder to class and then translate it. I’d read a chapter 10 times,” he said.
Once Vang graduated, he was approached by two men in uniform, which, considering his background, made him very nervous.
The men were from the Minnesota Air National Guard and were hoping to recruit Vang to be a dentist at the base. He felt he owed the U.S. for getting him out of Laos, so in 1998, he signed up. It didn’t hurt that they offered to help him pay his student loans. What they failed to tell him, however, was that he’d have to go through basic training. That meant push-ups, drills and long hikes, something not so easy for a man over 40.
“When I came back, I told the recruiter, ‘I’m mad at you guys,’ ” he said. “If I knew this, I would never, ever have signed up.”A LIFE OF HONOR
Vang said he sometimes misses his old country and thinks about the jungles and the food he was once used to. But as long as Laos is a communist country, he can never return, he said. He’s considered an enemy of the people because he collaborated with the CIA. His association with Gen. Pao makes him a wanted man.
Every time life got tough, Vang said, he persevered because he knew it could be worse.
“I tell myself, I went through something tougher than this. This is not life and death. If I can go through the war in Laos, I can do this,” he said.
Along with Guard duty, Vang opened his first dentist office in 1998. He has expanded from four chairs and himself to eight chairs and 11 employees. He also bought an old car dealership on University Avenue and remodeled it into the Hmong Minnesota Professionals building that includes other businesses, such as a bank and a chiropractic office.
What he loves most about America, Vang says, is opportunity.
“If you really want to do something in this country, you can. It’s up to you,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘I cannot do this or I cannot do that.’ That’s baloney. The U.S. gave me so much. I came here with nothing and now I am a doctor.”
Col. David Nelson, commander of the Medical Group at the 133rd Airlift Wing in St. Paul, summed up Vang’s life at his Guard retirement ceremony Oct. 13 with words that made him grin from ear to ear.
“Lt. Col. Vang, you are a true American,” he said. “You have lived a life of honor.”