Sai Pa Thao still has a pea-size lump on his ankle from the fighting – and he’ll gladly press your finger to where shrapnel still rests under his skin after more than three decades.
That lump is one of the many wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War. He received a Purple Heart in 2004.
Sai Pa Thao, James Thao and Xiong Pao Vue will be the only three men from California honored with medals for their wartime courage at the National Lao-Hmong Recognition Day celebration July 22 in Milwaukee, Wis.
They have worked for several years in the Appeal-Democrat’s mailroom, thousands of miles from where they fought in their respective separate battles more than 35 years ago.
Started in 2002, National Lao-Hmong Recognition Day honors the sacrifices of the Hmong people during the Vietnam War to disrupt Viet Cong supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
When he was about 10 years old, Sai Pa Thao trained with his parents to fight in Laos.
He remembers fighting Communist forces five times. He was wounded three times.
Thao will proudly show the scars left on him at a young age, whether they are physical or emotional.
During a battle, he was just a few feet from a Viet Cong soldier. What happened next followed the little experience he had at the time.
“I shot very close until my enemy’s brain exploded,” Thao said. He paused for a moment as the memory came back to him. “It was either them or me. I was very lucky.”
Vue fought in the same province as Sai Pa Thao and James Thao, who are not related. The leader of Vue’s village told everyone to grab a weapon and fight, so the 14-year-old Vue was thrown into the fray.
His most vivid memory is when he and seven fellow Hmong had to block a road against about 20 Viet Cong fighters. After a barrage of gunfire, Vue said, all 20 were either dead or had fled while the group he was with was still standing.
Vue isn’t sure how many people he killed on the battlefield, mostly because he was young and the battles were very chaotic. He would fire his gun and toss a grenade or two, but details were lost in the shuffle.
The post-battle carnage sticks in his mind.
“I just saw many people dead in the morning,” Vue said.
The only family he has left today is a sister. His father wanted them to escape but never made it out of Laos himself. Vue said he and his sister made it to the United States in 1992, after spending time in a refugee camp.
James Thao began fighting when he was 12 years old in Military Region 2. This region was in northern Laos and included the famed Plain of Jars. It was also where some of the most intense fighting took place.
Because they fought hard and had pride in the mountains, many Hmong died while helping the United States, James Thao said. In return, some of the Hmong were allowed to settle in the United States starting in 1976.
James Thao didn’t come until 1988, while Sai Pa Thao made it in 1983.
Memories of people they saw fall – and those who still are being hunted – stick in their minds.
“Every time I think about it, a tear comes out,” Sai Pa Thao said.