Chia Vue Yang was 10 when he was snatched from his Laotian village, bundled into a CIA helicopter and flown to a jungle base. He spent the next decade cooking, toting ammo and killing for the United States in the Vietnam War.
“They called me a ‘conscript.’ I was just 10 years old; what do I know?” said Chia, a Hmong mountain tribesman. “I went to the front lines. I cook, I wash clothes, I learn how to fight, I use a machine gun. Every so often, the CIA guy, Jerry Daniels, comes by and inspects. He says, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.’ We believe Jerry.”
Now, they feel betrayed.
Administrative judges and welfare authorities are hearing the formal pleas of the Hmong, who were told last month their food stamps would be cut off in accordance with the new federal welfare reform law. The law, signed by President Clinton last year, eliminated benefits for legal immigrants on the theory that only citizens should receive such privileges.
The Hmong say they are veterans of U.S. military forces and should be exempt from the cutoff. Filipinos who fought for the United States in World War II were given veterans’ status, they say. So why not the Hmong?
Hmong leaders plan to plead their case Thursday in Washington at the U.S. Agriculture Department, which administers the federal food stamp program.
Twenty-two years after U.S. forces left Vietnam, an eerie picture of the terror and death of that Southeast Asian war is emerging in an unlikely setting: the hearing rooms of California’s county welfare offices.
“I was in a position of great danger,” said a Hmong woman, speaking through an interpreter. The woman allowed a reporter to attend her confidential hearing before Yuba County Administrative Law Judge Robert Fugina on condition she not be identified.
Recruited by the CIA in the early 1970s, she served as a nurse, ministering to wounded combat troops and downed U.S. fliers. Her husband, also pressed into service, fought nearby in a CIA-led combat unit.
After the war, people began informing on their neighbors to curry favor with the victors.
“Everybody knew that someone like me and my husband would be killed because we worked for them (CIA),” she said. She and her husband fled, eventually reaching a refugee camp in Thailand, from which Americans helped arranged passage to the United States.
“It will be very hard for me. Please do not cut off my food stamps,” the mother of four told Fugina, who later approved her appeal.
State welfare officials, however, have since overruled Fugina, as well as other judges who ruled in favor of the Hmong. The state says the language of the federal law leaves them no choice.
The law acknowledges it is “the sense of Congress” that the Hmong should not be penalized by the reforms. But the law leaves less room for compassion, officials say.
“The CIA said it would take care of us,” said Blong Lo, a Hmong community leader in Chico. “But the CIA didn’t teach you how to speak English, they taught you how to shoot a gun and kill. These people might not survive without help from the government.”
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield, asked about the Hmong’s belief in CIA promises, declined to comment. About 3,600 Hmong appeals were filed in Fresno, Butte, Alameda, Orange, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Yuba counties, where most of California’s Hmong live. Asian legal advocates say several thousand more may be affected by the cutoff but have not challenged the law because they are leery of officialdom.
About two-thirds of the cases have been resolved, most of them against the Hmong; the remainder are pending.
In Minnesota, which also has a substantial Hmong population, legislation enables recipients to recoup some of the lost benefits. California has approved a similar, temporary program to continue food stamps for children and the elderly.
That the Hmong fought, and died, for the Americans in Southeast Asia is widely known. The Hmong were recruited by Laotian or Vietnamese soldiers - sometimes voluntarily, but usually not - and placed in military units subject to the orders of CIA officers.
The Hmong - clannish and accustomed to an agricultural environment - have had difficulty adjusting. It has been a struggle for them to enter mainstream American life, and English has proved hard to master. Until the 1950s, the Hmong had no printed language.
Yee Xiong and Blong, articulate in English, are informal spokesmen for the Hmong. The stories they’ve gathered from scores of tribal members are remarkably similar. But they vary dramatically from news accounts of the time, in which the Hmong were depicted as joining American-led forces because of anti-Communist zeal.
In one case, a village chief was pressed into service.
“They came into the village and they told me to provide five soldiers,” said the chief, Chong Lee Chue, 64. “I could only come up with four, so they said, ‘OK, then you have to go.”’ As he spoke, he showed a reporter his battle scars - a bullet crease in the scalp, shrapnel gashes on his leg, flesh missing from his fingertips.
After the U.S. pullout, Hmong units slipped into the jungles and lived off the land for months. Eventually making their way to refugee camps, many ended up in the United States.
Over the years, elder Hmong have had a particularly hard time assimilating into American society. For many of them, welfare is a crucial lifeline.
“I can breathe and I’m still alive,” Chong said, “but everything else is gone. The soul is gone.”