Fever in Their Bones

by Jane Futcher

Canadian War Museum, George Metcalf Archival Collection.

It is July 1917. As war rages in Europe, physician Thomas Barnes crosses the Atlantic to take charge of a Canadian war hospital in England. He soon discovers that war ignites passions as well as betrayals, medical breakthroughs as well as unspeakable traumas. As each new conflict cracks his cool facade, Thomas loses trust in his wife, his beloved mentor, and himself. Will love destroy him . . . or  restore his sanity?

Chapter One

Going OverSeptember 17, 1917

“How dashing you look, my darling,” Marjorie said when Thomas entered the sitting room dressed in the Canadian lieutenant colonel’s uniform the tailor had sent.
“Oh, Daddy!” The boys had shivered with delight at the sight their father in uniform, racing upstairs to don their own little soldier suits, sewn for them by their aunts in Ontario. 
Baby Gwendolen, cherubic and unflappable, broke into a wail.
“What on earth?” Marjorie placed the infant over her shoulder, tapping gently on her back. “Nurse! Where are you?”
Nurse rushed in from somewhere. “Right here, Mrs. B,” she cried, scooping Baby into her arms. “Goodness, me!” she exclaimed, seeing Thomas. “How handsome you look, doctor!”
“Feel quite foolish,” Thomas reddened, pulling the wool away from his neck, so very hot and scratchy on this humid Baltimore day.
“Nonsense,” Nurse laughed. “Every nurse will swoon at the sight of you.” Click to Read More.

Promise Not To Tell

by Jane Futcher

Meet fifteen-year-old Simon. He feels as if he can’t do anything right. He’s been kicked out of prep school and constantly battles with his parents. Shipping him off to Maine to live with his older cousin is his mother’s idea of a way to turn his life around. Simon doesn’t agree. But that’s before he meets Laura.

She is beautiful.The most beautiful girl Simon has ever seen. And she needs him. Laura is living with a dark secret she can’t tell anyone, except Simon. Simon has to help her. It’s the one thing he knows is right, even if keeping her secret makes everything go terribly wrong.

Chapter One

I’d been home from boarding school onlya few days when it happened. I’d forgotten how badthings are around my parents. My mom gets mad at my dad because his business ventures fail, and my dad yells at her because she doesn’t like sex. When things get too tense, Mom disappears on her horse or flies down to Santa Fe where her best friend lives. Life is calmer for a while, but things deteriorate when Dad’s in charge. He tends to space out on his household duties and forgets Johnny’s soccer practice and Nathan’s doctor appointments.
The atmosphere at home wasn’t exactly light whenthey kicked me out of school. What I did was pretty dumb, since we had only three more days before the term was over. We’d finished exams, and we were waiting around to get our grades and go, to graduation. Click to Read More

Reviews

“Few young-adult writers have succeeded in capturing the dialogue and internal voice of confused young men with the authenticity and power of Promise Not to Tell, by Jane Futcher…As Simon lurches from childlike needs to adult responsibility, he is by turn sullen and persecuted. He’s rebellious but dependent.”
-Patricia Holt, San Francisco Chronicle, August 1991.

“Some secrets are too dangerous to tell–and too dangerous to keep.” From the Young Adult Library Services Association, which selected Promise Not to Tell as a 1992 Quick Pick for Reluctant YA Readers. Quick Picks are selected because they “have emotional impact and are gripping and memorable.”

Dream Lover

by Jane Futcher

Kate Paine is a quiet lesbian artist. Ellie Webster is a married, seductive socialite who always has a woman “on the side.” Twenty years ago, the two women had a brief affair at boarding school. Now in their forties, they’ve met again. Suddenly, love flares up anew, and neither Kate nor Ellie’s lives will ever be the same.

Chapter Three

Kate tumed onto the live-lane freeway, heading south for Turkey Run. Three weeks had passed since the strange evening in Mill Valley with Ellie and her friends. Despite the dazzling house and the sexual innuendos, seeing Ellie again – so suburban and even matronly – had been almost anticlimactic. But since that evening something inside Kate had shifted. Kate’s energy and concentration increased as she painted. She’d begun a new Gina painting from photographs, a Rousseau-like dream portrait of both of them standing side by side, a jungle of birds-of-paradise, bougainvillea, and tiger lilies closing around them.
Click to Read More

Reviews

“Kate Paine knows she’s playing with fire when her lips touch those of her high school crush, now married with children. But she can’t stop herself. In this page-turner, Futcher makers her point brilliantly: There’s no flame like and old flame.” Sandra Scoppettone, author of Let’s Face the Music and Die and Trying Hard to Hear You.

“Jane Futcher’s novel, Dream Lover, is absolutely wonderful – compelling, humane, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, beautifully written and wise.”
Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird and Hard Laughter.

Women Gone Wild

by Jane Futcher

The adventures of two city slickers who leave their urban footprints behind and learn to love rattlers, bears, pot growers, two dachshunds and each other. Anyone who’s ever dreamed of chucking it all and moving to the country will find Women Gone Wild a funny, provocative and engaging story. And it’s all true.

Chapter One

Looking for Land in All the Wrong Places!

We stood before a shingled shack that had been described in that day’s classifieds as a “see-to-believe creekside getaway near the Russian River, with guest cottage and private redwood grove.”

The creek, now barely a trickle, apparently ran through this house in the winter, which might explain why the entire structure listed to one side. The redwood grove was a single looming tree growing so close to the foundation that its roots had hoisted the garage six inches off the ground. We could almost hear the buzz of happy termites munching on the floor joists. Click to Read More

Review

“I loved this book — it’s funny and genuine, informative and entertaining, an easy read (and one that’s hard to put down once you get started on it) thanks to Jane’s honest, humorous and conversational style. I laughed out loud at some points, chuckled at others; I shook my head in shared understanding reading some of the passages, thought about some things in a new way reading others. By the end of the book I felt as if I knew these women and their friends, and I had half an idea to just run up to Cherry Creek/Willits to say ‘Hi!,’ and maybe take a dip in their pond. It’s a wild ride these women took (and are still taking) and I’m so glad Jane Futcher shared it with us all in this keeper of a book.” — Mel, an Amazon reader

Crush

by Jane Futcher

It wasn’t easy fitting in at an exclusive girls’ school like Huntington Hill. But in her senior year, Jinx finally felt like she belonged. Even her dream of going to art school in New York City seemed more real every day. And best of all, Lexie wanted her for a friend. Beautiful, popular Lexie, who could have anything or anyone she wanted. The other girls said it could never work – Lexie was too spoiled, too demanding. But just being near Lexie made Jinx feel dizzy and scared and wonderful at the same time.

Chapter One

Our friendship began on a clear, crisp October after- noon one month after the start of senior year. The Warren Commission had just announced that a single gunman, not a conspiracy, had assassinated John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In Jackson, Mississippi, the public schools were integrated without violence. And in a few weeks, the names Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Baines Johnson would be posted in every polling booth in America. But at Huntington Hill, it was the day before the second hockey game of the season, and they had put me back on the team. Click to Read More.

New introduction by Dr. Marny Hall

“Originally published in 1981, Crush became an instant bestseller in the lesbian community, where reviewers and booksellers praised the novel for its engaging characters, dry wit, page-turning plot and moral sting. The book was among the first novels written in the voice of a teenaged girl upended by the exhilaration of new love for someone of her own sex. Caught in the thrall of attraction to the beautiful and bad Lexie Yves, Jinx Tuckwell hovers on the edge of ecstasy, teetering dangerously close to what she calls ‘the deep end.’”
Dr. Marny Hall, clinical psychologist and author of The Lavender Couch and The Lesbian Love Companion

Reviews

Praise for Jane Futcher’s Crush
“The emotional facts of this novel ring true. Jane Futcher has tried to present the confusing, terrifying dilemmas that accompany any step out of the narrow band of acceptable behavior that society tolerates.”
— Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, in New York Native

“The characterization is outstanding; the hurt, bewildered Jinx; her loyal roommate; and the smooth, calculating headmaster. Lexie is a superb portrait of a fascinating but unreliable and dangerous personality.” — The Horn Book magazine

“A good ear for dialogue and a good eye for a scene and a good memory for the sickening incomprehensions of adolescence.” — Helen Vendler, professor and literary critic for the New York Review of Books, in a letter to the author

New Year’s Resolutions 2021

By Jane Futcher

cropped-cropped-img_8332-1.jpegHow many times have you resolved to exercise every day, ban sugar from your diet and write no matter how many crazy things are going on around you?

I’m certain I’ve made those pledges every year since I started writing down my resolutions in 1902. Correction: 1962.

Have I succeeded? While I’m sleeping on New Year’s Eve I’m pure as the driven snow. But come January First, when I’m supposed to be eating black-eyed peas, I spot a chocolate croissant at Starbucks or a friend tells me I can’t miss the best TV series ever made that is about to air or I get reach into my top drawer for hiking socks and find I simply must clean out the entire closet between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when I’d planned to walk and write.

This year I know my resolutions will stick. After all, COVID is still a life-threatening menace despite the new vaccines — how the heck do you get one?— despite the masks, despite the social distancing we attempt going the wrong way down the aisle at the grocery store.

This year will be different, I’m sure. After all, if the nasty virus strikes us down, and we haven’t achieved our life’s goals, we’ll be miserable. I know I won’t die happy if my life plans are sitting like the dirty laundry in the basket in my closet?

This year COVID will help me say “no” to that croissant, no to that thrilling TV show and no to that sudden project that sabotages my writing and walking.

It shouldn’t be hard. I’ve frozen the cake and cookies left over from Christmas. I’ve used up all our WiFi gigs watching “The Queen’s Gambit” anyway. And I’ve found hiking boots that don’t hurt my feet. I’m on my way. How about you?

Coronavirus Turns Dream Cruise Into Trip to Nowhere for Laytonville Couple

By Jane Futcher
March 5, 2020
Willits Weekly

A small but dangerous adversary hijacked a once-in-a-lifetime Asian cruise my wife Erin and I booked on the Holland America ship Westerdam.

For two weeks during February, five countries refused to let our ship dock despite the cruise company’s repeated assurances that none of us — 1,455 guests and 747 crew— had COVID-19 — the novel coronavirus.

Some media outlets dubbed the Westerdam “Pariah Ship” as the governments of the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Guam, and Thailand turned us away.

When we finally debarked, the challenges continued when an 83-year-old Westerdam passenger tested positive for the virus. She is recovering in Kuala Lumpur, but her case threw in to turmoil travel home for the ship’s 1644 passengers.

The first two weeks of our cruise were a blast. Boarding in Singapore Jan. 16, we snorkeled in Koh Samui, Thailand; took selfies with the golden Buddhas of Bangkok’s Royal Palace; watched the sun rise over the haunting temples of Angkor Wat and visited the so-called Hanoi Hilton, the infamous French-built prison where Sen. John McCain spent five nightmare years and countless Vietnamese political prisoners were held by the French Colonial government from 1886 to 1954.

Our ship’s tangle with the novel virus began soon after we left Hong Kong, where nearly half of the ship’s guests disembarked Feb. 1, as scheduled, and about the same number of new passengers came aboard for the second leg of the trip to Manila, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Shanghai, the intended final port of call, had already been scratched from our itinerary because of the coronavirus outbreak there. The revised plan was to debark in Yokohama and fly home from nearby Tokyo.

We soon found the welcome mat pulled up as the virus outbreak on the Diamond Princess forced that ship to quarantine in Yokohama Feb. 4. (To date, 542 out of 3,711 Diamond Princess passengers have tested positive for the virus, making the ship the site of the most infections outside of China.)

Our itinerary got weird. Our two-night stay in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, was cut short without explanation Feb. 5. South Korea was scratched without explanation and the ship headed north toward Japan when the ship Captain Vincent Smit announced we could not stop anywhere in Japan and were heading east toward Guam. Many of us joked that with luck we’d end up on a beach in Hawaii.

A day later, the captain announced that we were heading westward again. Gwam was a no-go. An electronic map of the ship’s course and positions showed a bright yellow line zig zagging through the South China Sea.

Half laughing, half crying, our friend and shipmate Holley taught us the words to an African song Art Garfunkel made famous:

“We are going,

Heaven knows where we are going . . .

And we’ll get there.

Heaven knows how we will get there.

But we know we will.”

We were disappointed to miss so many ports, but not worried. The captain had assured us there were no coronavirus cases aboard. The food was great, and we had many diversions, including daily Asian history lectures, dancing to live soul music in the B.B. King Lounge, an Oscar party on the Main Stage, and nonstop TV coverage in our staterooms of the impeachment vote, the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses. If none of those appealed, we could gamble in the casino or read on our balconies as the ship steamed off to nowhere under sunny skies.

To much applause, the captain announced Feb. 12 that Thailand had agreed to let us land near Bangkok. Passengers nearly crashed the ship’s Wifi trying to book flights home and contact families. Adding to our cheer was the news that Holland America would refund our fares and give us 50 percent off another cruise if we booked in the next twelve months.

Up in the Crow’s Nest Observation Deck one morning after a capuccino, I spoke with Jan Kennedy of Yorkshire, England, who loved the first leg of the trip but was not happy with Holland America’s handling of the crisis after Hong Kong.

“When Holland America decided that we were going to go to Hong Kong,” Kennedy said, “We were all quite alarmed because by that time we already knew that there was a [COVID-19] problem brewing there, so we were quite shocked that they were going to take us to Hong Kong and let a lot of people on potentially bringing on the virus with them.

“And then after that there was very poor communication. The ship itself is wonderful, the crew have been fantastic and looked after us, but we’ve been very disappointed with Holland America for the communications or lack of communication. I know they’re trying to rectify that but of course it will have spoiled the cruise for most people, I think.”

As we drew closer to Thailand, an ominous lookingThai naval ship with a cannon on its bow began to follow us. No worries, the captain announced. The ship was escorting us to port. A couple of hours later, Captain Smit announced we were not landing in Thailand after all but heading east to Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where we would disembark. Holland America would book our flights home and pay for them. All of this, he said, might take a few days since passengers hailed from many countries. Most of us were from the USA and Canada and Holland.

On Feb. 12, in waters off Sihanoukville, several dozen Cambodian officials boarded the ship to sort through our passports and health records, confirming that there were no coronavirus cases aboard and double checking to be sure that no one aboard had traveled to mainland China before boarding. We had the “all clear!”

At 6 a.m. the next day, the captain woke us up asking passengers us to go immediately to the port side of the ship, donning the scarves left on our beds the night before. The scarves, he said, were a gift from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was landing soon by helicopter to welcome ashore the ship’s first passengers. We waved, as directed, to the prime minister; media outlets from around the world documented the disembarkation.

On Valentine’s Day, when I returned from my cappuccino in the Crow’s Nest, Erin was beside herself.

“Where have you been?” she cried. “Holland America has booked us on a charter flight to Kuala Lumpur. Finish packing!” We would stay there in a hotel, she said, and fly to Singapore in the morning.

“But our final destination is San Francisco not Singapore,” I said. The staff said not to worry. Malaysian Airlines in Kuala Lumpur would book us through to SFO.

On our bus to the airport and our flight to Kuala Lumpur were a man with a wretched cough and his 83-year-old wife.

On landing in Kuala Lumpur, masked flight attendants pulled off the elderly woman and her husband while the rest of us waited on the plane, for what we didn’t know. Someone walked down the aisle spraying us with an unnamed aerosol disinfectant. Erin kept her head under her blanket.

Then our trip got really weird. Instead of preceding to our flights, officials in the airport held us in a freezing transit lounge (It was in 80 degrees outside!) for more than three hours. Shivering, with police and unsmiling airport personnel watching us, we waited. Some people missed their next flight. Others were allowed to go to theirs. Finally, someone appeared with blankets and pillows and airline dinners.

Miraculously, a can-do retired nurse named Linda from Denver took control of the situation, calling Holland America’s Seattle headquarters and the American consulate in Kuala Lumpur to find out why were being held. She relayed news from Holland America, the consulate and Malaysian officials back to the rest of us over the P.A. system.

“Someone from the consulate will be coming soon to help us,” she announced.

Then later — “No one will be getting their luggage tonight because your luggage has gone to customs and immigration; we cannot go there, since we are in transit, and we are not going through immigration. You will pick up your luggage when you reach your final destination.”

Erin and I were alarmed. “We don’t have a final destination,” we told the nurse “Our ticket stops in Singapore.

“I’ll ask about,” she promised.

“What about the hotel?” we said. “Those of us leaving in the morning were told we’d have a room.”

“No one is staying at a hotel,” Linda said over the P.A. system. “That isn’t happening. But the airport is trying to find a more comfortable place for you to spend the night.”

No suitcases. No hotel?

At long last, officials escorted us through much of the airport and aboard an airport train to the Golden Lounge, where we would spend the night.

The Golden Lounge was great — a cavernous room for first-class tourists with a free 24-hour buffe, beverages, chairs, bathrooms and showers. Tucked away in a small alcove, Erin found a woman’s “napping lounge” and nabbed two couches for us. We took showers set our alarm clocks for 5 a.m., when, the nurse said, a Malaysian airline representative would escort early departures like us to the transit ticket desk. We were booked to fly to Singapore at 8 a.m.

As we waited for our boarding passes the next morning, a woman showed up from the American Consulate in Kuala Lumpur.

“I don’t usually work on airline tickets,” she told me, “But this is an unusual situation.”

“What happened?” I asked. “Why have we been held here?”

“I’m trying to sort it all out,” was the gist of what she said. We felt better knowing that someone from our government was on the case.

Amazingly, when we got to the head of the line, the Malaysian ticket agent gave us a boarding passes for Tokyo, a five-hour trip, and from Tokyo to SFO, a 12-hour trip. All was not lost.

In Tokyo, we dashed to our flight, with just enough time to text our friends Holley and Liz from the ship. They said the 83-year-old corona virus case had thrown travel plans for the rest of the passengers into chaos. Holland America had flown them and about 300 others on a charter plane to Phnom Penh, where they were staying in a luxury hotel awaiting full coronavirus testing. A number of airlines and countries would not take them without full health clearances. The prime minister of Cambodia was now in trouble for letting the Westerdam land. It would take several days for everyone in Phnom Penh to be tested. Meanwhile, back on the Westerdam, she said that Holland America was testing more than 200 guests still there as well as the entire staff.

We made it to SFO at about 8 a.m. the next morning, and took BART to El Cerrito, where we planned to spend the night before driving home.

Nearly simultaneously on BART, Erin and opened e-mails and texts we had not seen while traveling. The 83 year old on our flight, the media reported, had tested positive for the virus although her husband was negative.

“Oh, shit.” Erin texted our friend. “We may have been exposed to the virus.”

The three of us stood awkwardly at the BART station.

“I don’t think you should stay with me,” our friend said. “I am so sorry.”

By this time we had been in transit for 48 hours.

“We can’t go home,” Erin said. “We’re too tired to drive and besides my daughter is there with two friends taking care of the dogs.”

“Can you stay in a motel?” our friend asked.

“Of course,” I said uncertainly.

“I’m too tired to look,” Erin said.
We ate Thai lunch at a restaurant in El Cerrito as I searched online for a motel.

“Let’s treat ourselves to a nice place,” Erin said.

It was Saturday of Valentine’s Day weekend. Every hotel or motel we could think of was booked.

“Let’s drive to Novato,” I said. “We’ll find a motel there.”

In Novato we found what must have been the last room in the Bay Area.

We were freezing and exhausted. My down jacket was in my suitcase. But where was my suitcase? Not with us.

From the motel, Erin called UCSF Emergency Department hoping we could resolve this matter of our possible exposure to coronavirus once and for all, with a test.

“Do you test for coronavirus?” she asked.

“Only if you have symptoms,” replied someone from the Emergency Department. “Do you have fever? Cough? Difficulty breathing?”

“I’m fine,” she said.

“We won’t test you. Don’t come in.”

She called Marin General. Same thing. They didn’t test unless someone was symptomatic.

“Guess what?” I said, staring at a text. “The woman I was talking to from our flight to Kuala Lumpur texted me that her brother, who is still in Phnom Penh, says the positive test in Kuala Lumpur is believed to be suspect. Malaysia has refused to allow the CDC and the World Health Organization retest her.”

“That explains it,” Erin said. “How else could her husband and every other passenger be negative.Let’s go to a movie,” Erin said. “It’s 6 p.m. Too early to go to bed.”

We bought a giant popcorn and saw a movie, thinly plotted but riveting, which kept us awake until 10 p.m.

“How do you feel?” I said as we drove north to Mendocino Sunday.

“Fine,” Erin said.

“Do you feel short of breath, feverish?”

“You know I don’t,” she said. “That woman was a false positive. I know it.”

“Should we quarantine ourselves?” I said.

“We need groceries ito self-quarantine.”

We decided only one of us would go briefly into Trader Joe’s and only after we’d cleaned our hands with Purel.

Erin called her daughter. She and her friends were leaving. They would not take the chance of being exposed to us.

“I understand,” Erin said. “But just so you know, we’re not sick.”

We passed her daughter and her friends on our road, blowing kisses to them.

We were thrilled to be home.

We called the Mendocino public health, part of County Health and Human Services. The message machine was full.

A couple hours later, some called and read us the protocol stating that if you have no symptoms, you did not need to be stay in quarantine.

“Fine,” Erin said, explaining that we thought the 83 year old’s positive test was bogus.

Soon we got a call back from the county. They changed their mind and would like us to stay in quarantine at home.

“Sure,” Erin said, explaining that some thought the woman’s test was a false positive.

“That does seem odd,” she said. “Do you need anything? I live nearby. I can bring you groceries.”

“We’re fine,” Erin said. “But thank you.”

Friends brought our mail and more groceries. The nurse called every day that week to check on our temperature and symptoms. We had nothing to report. Everything was normal.

On Sunday, Feb. 23, seven days after our plane ride with the alleged corona virus case, we received an email from Holland America’s president, Orlando Ashford. He said that the woman who tested positive was now clear of the virus and that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun doubted
the accuracy of the initial test.

“Based on information provided for the reported single confirmed case of COVID-19,” he wrote, “the U.S. CDC does not recommend isolation or quarantine for guests returning home from Westerdam. If for some reason you have been asked to self-quarantine by your national, state or local health authority, please let us know.”

We sent the letter to the county. The nurse agreed that we were probably fine and said she would not call every day, unless we wanted her to. She reminded us that our quarantine was voluntary.

We went shopping on Monday and had dinner with a friend.

The world is on alert. China is on virtual lockdown. The U.S. stock market is plummeting.

Meanwhile, all of us are supposed to wash our hands well and often; never touch our faces and mouths with our fingers; cover our mouths when we cough and wear a mask if we are sick.

We are grappling with COVID-19.

Erin and I are healthy. More than fourteen days have passed since we traveled in an airplane with a woman who was suspected of having coronavirus but does not have it.

What a long strange trip it’s been.

Lawyers, Guns, and Money

By Jane Futcher
California Lawyer Magazine
July 23, 2010

When federal agents arrested ten Hmong leaders in California last year, did they foil a terrorist plot—or entrap a group of delusional exiles?

Early last year, at a popular Thai restaurant in Sacramento just a few blocks from the state capitol, a trim, 60-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel named Harrison Jack met Steve Hoffmaster, a former Navy SEAL, for the first time. A seemingly pleasant guy in his 40s, Hoffmaster described himself as a part-time arms dealer, and said he was following up on a call that Jack had made to a private defense contractor in Arizona about buying hundreds of AK-47s for a group of insurgents halfway around the world. Now, as they sat together at the restaurant amid an array of gold-painted Buddhas, Hoffmaster promised to get Jack everything he wanted–and more.

That conversation, along with as many as 30 others both in person and over the phone, serves as a road map to an astonishing and thoroughly implausible plot to overthrow the Communist government of Laos–a government toward which the United States is officially neutral, despite its deplorable record of abuse of the native Hmong. These fiercely independent people, who still live in the mountain jungles of Laos and who, historically, have had little to do with the lowland Lao, are now said to number less than 15,000. They are also said to be the target of a brutal military campaign that can be traced back to the 1960s, when the Hmong sided with the Americans in a CIA-supported “secret” war against both the Laotian and North Vietnamese Communists.

One of the most charismatic figures in that war was Gen. Vang Pao, who for 13 years commanded an army of Hmong irregulars. Today, at age 78, the former general lives in Orange County, where he is still a revered figure. “Gen. Vang Pao is George Washington to this community,” says Blong Xiong, a Hmong activist who serves on Fresno’s city council.

However, as Jack’s remarks to Hoffmaster over the coming months would suggest, Vang Pao never completely let go of the idea of someday returning to Laos. In fact, at their first meeting in Sacramento, Jack told Hoffmaster he worked directly for Vang Pao, who wanted, along with other Hmong leaders in the immigrant community, to promote free and democratic elections in their home country.

Hoffmaster asked if the leaders were “willing to use force to try to get it.” “Preferably not,” was Jack’s response.

Eventually, Jack asked Hoffmaster for 125 M-16 rifles, smoke grenades, ammunition, and two Stinger missiles, all to be delivered to “staging areas” or “safe houses” in Thailand. But that was just the beginning of a deal that would grow to $9.8 million and include 24 special-ops mercenaries to blow up key buildings in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, and a 5 percent “finder’s fee” for Jack.

Then, on June 4, 2007, the negotiations–all surreptitiously taped–came to an abrupt end when, just before dawn, federal agents armed with guns and warrants surrounded Jack’s home and the homes of nine Hmong exiles, mostly in central California.

Needless to say, Hoffmaster–not his real name–wasn’t the friendly arms dealer he said he was. Rather, he was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent working on a sting operation dubbed “Tarnished Eagle.”

Among those arrested that Monday morning were Jack’s 34-year-old confidante, Lo Cha Thao, a ambitious pilot and political consultant from Clovis; Youa True Vang, 60, the founder of the Hmong International New Year’s festival in Fresno; Hue Vang, 39, a former Clovis police officer and director of the United Lao Council for Peace, Freedom and Reconstruction; and Lo Thao, 53, of Stockton, the president of United Hmong International, a Fresno-based charity also known as the Supreme Council of the 18 Hmong clans. For the Hmong community, though, the most shocking arrest was that of Gen. Vang Pao.

The defendants, held without bail for five and a half weeks, were charged with conspiracy to violate the U.S. Neutrality Act; conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, and injure people in a foreign country; conspiracy to receive and possess missile systems designed to destroy aircraft; and two other weapons-related felonies. In all, the charges could put them behind bars for the rest of their lives.

“The simple fact of the matter is that the law of the United States, going back nearly to the founding of the Republic, is that private citizens cannot lawfully undertake [hostile] actions in foreign countries,” observed McGregor W. Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, whose office worked closely with the ATF on the sting operation. “In other words, foreign policy is the province exclusively of the federal government. It is not the province of private citizens. And these folks–of their own volition-developed a plan, contacted persons who could help them carry out the plan, and took very real steps in furtherance of that plan, all of which is in violation of federal law.”

As news of the arrests spread, the tens of thousands of Hmong whose families had come to the United States via refugee camps in Thailand, mostly under the Refugee Act of 1980, expressed shock and disbelief. Who could have authorized such a sting? they asked. Was the Bush administration trying to curry favor and good trade relations with the government of Laos–human rights be damned? And if the motive wasn’t political, why didn’t the Justice Department simply pick up the phone and call Jack or the general to explain that sending arms to Laos was against the law? That might have nipped the whole scheme in the bud, saved hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and freed the ATF to pursue real terrorists. But, of course, that’s not the way sting operations work.

“The arrest of General Vang Pao is unjust because half of his people died for this country during the Vietnam War,” says Pobtusa Thao, a 37-year-old Hmong nurse who lives in Sacramento. “No matter what he did, they cannot put this guy in jail and lock him up until he dies.”

Philip Smith, the director of Lao Veterans of America in Washington, D.C., whose wife is Hmong, goes further. “I feel very strongly that the U.S. government should immediately drop the case,” he says. “It’s a farce, a horrible farce.”

Defending Vang Pao pro bono is John Keker, the San Francisco trial lawyer who has represented such high-profile clients as investment banker Frank Quatronne, plaintiffs lawyer Bill Lerach, and former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. A former Marine platoon sergeant himself, Keker was wounded in Vietnam but knew little about Hmong history and politics before the general’s family sought him out. “I think the whole case is a result of a deeply foolish undercover agent and a deeply foolish U.S. Attorney’s office that permitted this agent to run wild,” he says. “If this case ever goes before a jury, they’ll jump out of the jury box and chase the prosecutors down the street for having brought it.”

Even U.S. Attorney Scott says he takes “no joy” in prosecuting this case. “In my many years as a prosecutor, there’s a certain satisfaction and almost elation when you’re able to bring charges against some very violent or notorious criminals,” he confides. “In this case I can’t say that. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances.”

By the time of his arrest, Jack, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, had launched a number of businesses, some of them more marginal than others. At one point he sold bottled water at traditional Hmong festivals and celebrations. He also worked with troubled Hmong kids and struggling Hmong refugees, consulted with the state on military base closures, and planned joint military-civilian natural disaster responses for the National Guard. And he founded HERO–the Hmong Emergency Relief Organization–a humanitarian group for which he hoped to raise $200,000 by putting together an air show in Fresno.

According to the indictment, Jack’s interest in supplying arms to the Hmong dates back at least to November 2006–two months before he met Hoffmaster at the Thai restaurant–when he asked about purchasing 500 AK-47 machine guns. The prosecution also alleges that, after several conversations with Hoffmaster, Jack and the Hmong exiles began to consider far-more-powerful weapons, including shoulder-mounted Stinger missiles for shooting down Laotian helicopters.

During the period leading up to the arrests, though, Hoffmaster spoke directly with Vang Pao only once. That was during a February 2007 luncheon, which included seven other Hmong leaders. According to the prosecution’s transcripts, the general said only a few words to the agent during that meeting, and he made no mention of an arms deal or a coup plot. However, after the lunch, the agent announced that he had a “surprise” waiting for the group, then led them to his parked recreational vehicle. Inside, he displayed some of the heavy metal he had to offer: AK-47 and M-16 machine guns, C-4 explosives, light antitank rockets, grenade launchers, and Claymore mines.

It was an impressive arsenal, and with the easy financing Hoffmaster promised–not to mention the mercenary soldiers–the vague outlines of a plan to take the Laotian capital by storm began to take shape.

Not that there weren’t reservations. In fact, at one point Jack asked a friend to run a background check on Hoffmaster. (The results of that check weren’t disclosed in the transcripts provided by the prosecution.) Also around then, Lo Cha Thao sought the advice of a former Wisconsin state senator named Garry George, who had been a friend to Hmong causes and who, according to the prosecution, was serving a four-year federal prison sentence for “public corruptionrelated charges.” George told Lo Cha Thao that if the arms dealer would agree to be paid overseas, he was probably legitimate.

Hoffmaster readily agreed to take payment in Bangkok–as long as Jack and Lo Cha Thao could quickly provide him with a detailed weapons order, delivery dates, locations, well-marked maps, and specific orders for his mercenaries.

The scheme the defendants ultimately came up with–code-named Operation POPCORN, for “Political Opposition Party’s Coup Operations to Rescue the Nation”–would be surprisingly easy and nearly bloodless, according to Lo Cha Thao: During the first week of June, with Hmong clan leaders in Laos ready to strike, Lo Cha Thao and the others would fly to Bangkok, where the weapons would be distributed. Hoffmaster’s mercenaries would land near Vientiane at dawn to blow up eight key government buildings, then “melt” into the jungle half an hour later. As the buildings toppled, the ruling elite would quickly flee the country, the disgruntled (if not bribed) Lao military would change allegiance almost instantly, and university students would join the rebellion as well. In short order, the Communist rulers of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic would be replaced with a democratically elected government, quite possibly led by Lo Cha Thao himself.

“Lo [Cha Thao] is not a [U.S.] citizen,” Jack told the undercover agent in March, “and neither is General Vang Pao. And the reason is, they can’t go back to Laos being U.S. citizens and expect to run things when they take it back over.” (In fact, Vang Pao is a U.S. citizen, and Lo Cha Thao has legal resident status.)

“Wow,” the undercover agent responded.

Gen. Vang Pao is a stout, bald man with military bearing and a dazzling smile that can still light up a room, even though he now has health problems (he suffers from both diabetes and heart disease). In fact, early in his incarceration at the Sacramento County Jail he had to be rushed to the UC Davis Medical Center after complaining of chest pains. Two other defendants also were hospitalized during their incarcerations–Seng Vue, 68, who suffered a stroke, and Chong Yang Thao, 54, who was treated for “stroke-like” symptoms.

Ultimately, though, when on July 13, 2007, U.S. Magistrate Dale A. Drozd ordered Vang Pao and nine other defendants released on bail after 39 days in custody, it had nothing to do with their health. Rather, Drozd concluded that the defendants weren’t as dangerous as the prosecution had claimed. (Several days later, he released the eleventh defendant, Lo Cha Thao, as well.) Under the original terms of their release, all were to be under electronically monitored home detention and could communicate only with family members, their physicians, and their lawyers. But the conditions of their bail have since been loosened substantially, and they are freer to move around.

Last April Vang Pao made a court-approved public appearance at a gala honoring Hmong veterans who had served in the CIA’s secret war in Southeast Asia. Several hundred Hmong from across the state filled Fresno’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium that day, and nearly half lined up to kneel at Vang Pao’s feet and wind strands of white yarn around his wrist–a traditional Hmong blessing of good fortune, health, and prosperity. Several others also received the blessing, including two American veterans and both of Vang Pao’s wives. (He is legally married to only one, of course, but in parts of Southeast Asia polygamy is still a common practice.)

Addressing the attentive crowd through a translator, the general seemed genuinely touched. “I want to take the time to thank each of you for the love you have bestowed on me and my family during this time of crisis,” he said. “I will remember that as long as I live life in the world.”

Vang Pao began his storied military career as a teenager, carrying messages during World War II for the Free French resistance in Indochina. Later, he trained as an officer for the Royal Lao Army to fight alongside the French against Hanoi’s Viet Minh invasion of his country. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the early 1960s, with American troops starting to pour into the region, he had achieved enough prominence to become the CIA’s point man in Laos. A brilliant tactician and military strategist, he and his soldiers–some as young as ten years old–kept the Communists at bay until U.S. forces pulled out of Laos in July 1973.

One year later, with the Communists closing in, more than 10,000 Hmong flocked to Vang Pao’s key air base at Long Chien, desperate to board planes that would take them to safety. But there was no evacuation plan. After the government fell, the Communists promised to abide by a 1973 cease-fire agreement forbidding “acts of revenge and discrimination” against those who had cooperated with the Americans. But it wasn’t long before the Communists openly declared their intent to wipe out the Hmong. To escape, thousands of Hmong risked the dangerous climb over rugged mountains surrounding the Plain of Jarres region to reach refugee camps across the Mekong River in Thailand (see “A Grim Picture Gets Grimmer,” right). In all, 40 percent of Vang Pao’s 40,000-man army was killed, and no doubt many more died trying to escape.

The story for Vang Pao himself, however, was quite different: Because of his relationship with the CIA, he was whisked away on a special flight out of Laos. He had already sent two of his wives and their children to Thailand; the rest of his family would come later. After spending a number of harsh, cold winters in Montana, he eventually ended up in Orange County.

Once in the states, Vang Pao helped create a chain of Lao Family Community centers to assist the thousands of Hmong refugees who flocked to America. He also used his influence to mediate clan disputes and to pressure both the federal and local governments to provide more services to his people. Most of the refugees were penniless when they arrived in the United States, spoke no English, and were traumatized by years of war. Meanwhile, at traditional Hmong festivals and celebrations, Vang Pao continued to express hope for a return to a democratic Laos someday. According to news accounts, he even tried to raise money by offering for sale prospective commissions and political appointments to the democratically elected government he envisioned.

But Vang Pao seemed to have a major change of heart in 2003, when he offered to establish economic ties with the Laotian government–at least implicitly recognizing its rule. The decision set off intense debate within the Hmong community in America–and it may have led to the torching of the Minnesota home of one of the general’s sons.

Did Vang Pao have another change of heart in 2007, when, as the prosecution alleges, he endorsed Operation POPCORN?

No way, says Keker, his lawyer, who maintains that his client never was part of any conspiracy to retake Laos. “The general was absolutely appalled at what Lo Cha [Thao] was even talking about” in early 2007, Keker says, adding that, “I think Harrison Jack was a seriously deluded man. The stuff about how they’re going to walk into Laos without firing [a shot] was just ridiculous. It was bar talk. But what’s offensive about it was they arrested a bunch of people who weren’t even in the bar. [Vang Pao and others] didn’t have anything to do with [the plot], and disapproved of it, and thought it was nuts and thought the guys were nuts. And they were nuts.”

While most of the attention naturally has focused on Vang Pao, in the prosecution’s taped conversations it was Lo Cha Thao and Harrison Jack who did most of the talking.

“Lo Cha does not speak for the general,” insists Jane Hamilton-Merritt, an Asian scholar and former war correspondent who has written a definitive history of the relationship between the Hmong and the United States entitled Tragic Mountains (Indiana University Press, 1993). “[Lo Cha’s] never been a soldier,” she points out. “He’s not an officer who fought with the general or worked with him on past projects.”

So what was Lo Cha Thao’s role in the alleged arms deal? According to Lo Cha Thao’s own lawyer, Mark Reichel, he’s “a hustler and a half,” though hardly a terrorist.

In fact, to explain Lo Cha Thao’s conversations with Hoffmaster, Reichel suggests that his client thought that the Bush administration actually wanted his help in overthrowing the Laotian government. And to underscore the point, Reichel hearkens back to the secret war in Laos, when Americans gave the Hmong military support that couldn’t be officially acknowledged because it violated the 1962 Geneva Accords, which affirmed Laos’s status as a neutral state. Says Reichel, “The Hmong know the CIA is capable of black operations all over the world, in Iran, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. … Now this guy [Hoffmaster] comes in and says, ‘my agency,’ and allows them to refer to him as the Navy SEAL, and as the military guy. Why would he have pitched that persona to these people? Because he knew they’d buy it. And he knew he could expand it. And if you can expand it and make a terrorism case out of this [for the government], that’s victory.”

It’s unlikely the defendants will be tried before 2010. But if and when they are brought to trial, the defense will portray the government’s sting operation as designed to ensnare a group of law-abiding refugees.

Keker emphasized this at a bail hearing last year in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento. “The coup plan was a fantasy,” he told Magistrate Drozd. “They had no weapons, no money. It’s like us sitting around planning an attack in Darfur or something.”

But as prosecutor Scott points out, a conspiracy doesn’t have to be a good or smart plan to be a crime: “The legal obligation we have is to show that there was an agreement between two or more people to launch a military or naval expedition in a foreign country or to kill, maim or injure people, or damage property in a foreign country.”

Prosecutors also dismiss out of hand any suggestion that the defendants were illegally entrapped. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert M. Twiss observed, “There’s no way a [former] lieutenant colonel in the United States Army could possibly think that he could buy a single AK-47, let alone 150 or 200 or 500 AK-47s, from anybody. … There can’t be a scintilla of possibility that Harrison Jack thought he was engaging in legitimate activity at this point in time.”

No matter how the case ends, the Hmong community will, no doubt, continue to wonder what the government was thinking when it authorized Operation Tarnished Eagle. But from a broader perspective, perhaps the most important question suggested by this case is whether operations such as Tarnished Eagle send the right signal to our allies abroad, especially in a time of war.

Philip Smith of the Lao Veterans of America thinks not. “How can they trust the CIA or the National Security Council to be sincere if this is how America treats the Hmong and is treating General Vang Pao?” He adds, “It has the stench of betrayal that hangs over the Bush administration, that hangs over the CIA. Is this how America treats its friends?”

The Death of Lao General Vang Pao

by Jane Futcher
April 10, 2011

How America Treats Its Friends

I learned recently that General Vang Pao, a former Laotian Hmong military leader and staunch American ally during the Vietnam War, died in January of pneumonia in Clovis, Calif. He was 81.

The general was revered by many of this country’s nearly 200,000 ethnic Hmong, whose first-generation elders here fled the mountains of Laos to escape the Lao Communists’ genocidal persecution of the Hmong that began when the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973. That persecution continues today.

The U.S. Army declined to bury Vang at Arlington National Cemetery despite requests from his family and supporters, who believed he deserved the honor for having fought for13 years with the U.S. in the CIA’s covert war in Laos. Vang Pao led his army of 40,000 Hmong soldiers against the Viet Cong, attacking their supply lines from North Vietnam to the south, through Laos, along the Ho Chi Min Trail.

Despite Vang Pao’s heroic status in the American Hmong community, his life took a shocking turn in 2007, when he, along with 11 others, was arrested by U.S. marshals for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Communist government of Laos.

The charges were a stunning rebuke for Gen. Vang Pao, who had long enjoyed an exalted status among the Hmong, an ethnic minority in Laos. He raised money for Hmong causes in the United States and had been outspoken in his desire for a democratic government in Laos. His arrest set off protests, including demonstrations in Sacramento and Fresno, which have large Hmong communities.

Three years ago, when California Lawyer Magazine asked me to write a story about Vang Pao and the events that led to his arrest, I’d never heard of him and knew nothing about the Hmong role in the Vietnam War.

The project meant delving into what was for me an irresistible combination: the defining military engagement of my generation, the ever-maddening Central Intelligence Agency, and an improbable ATF sting that was stranger than fiction.

Like a lot of Baby Boomers, I’d opposed the war in Vietnam, believing it to be illegal, wrong-headed and hopeless. I’d marched on Washington to bring the troops home, demonstrated at the American Embassy in London when I was a student there, and got myself arrested in Boston with dozens of other college kids for blocking buses taking Army recruits to their induction physicals.

My feelings about the CIA were just as negative. I hated the fact that the agency spent billions of taxpayer dollars interfering with other countries’ governments and conducting far-flung wars hidden from the American public and over which we had no control.

Learning of Gen. Vang Pao’s death last month triggered memories not only of those tumultuous days protesting the Vietnam War but of the general and the Hmong Americans I met while reporting the story. Theirs is a traumatizing tale, from brutal persecution at the hands of the Lao Communists to the challenges of transitioning from their nomadic tribal life in Asia to the alien, high-tech, English-only culture of cities such as Minneapolis, Fresno and Sacramento, where there are large Hmong communities.

The court documents in the government’s case against. Gen. Vang Pao et al. read like the script of an action thriller. “Operation Tarnished Eagle” was the name the federal department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms gave its sting against the general and his alleged co-conspirators. Most of the government’s evidence for its charge –that the defendants had violated the Neutrality Act by planning a military attack on a country with whom the U.S. was neutral — came from that sting and conversations in 2007 that Vang Pao and eleven other defendants had with an undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In those conversations, the government argued, the defendants outlined a $25-million dollar plan to provide the means and manpower for insurgents to bomb government buildings in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, and shoot down Laotian military planes with Stinger missiles.

The indictment listed a raft of weapons and equipment that defendants plotted to supply to insurgents, including antitank rockets, mines, explosives, night-vision goggles and medical kits.

Several of the most damning conversations with the ATF agent, who went by the alias of Steve Hoffmaster, were tape recorded at a popular Thai restaurant in Sacramento a few blocks from the state capitol. It was there that Harrison Jack, a trim, 60-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel with deep sympathy for the Hmong, met Hoffmaster, a former Navy SEAL, for the first time. A seemingly pleasant guy in his 40s, Hoffmaster described himself as a part-time arms dealer, and said he was following up on a call that Jack had made to a private defense contractor in Arizona about buying hundreds of AK-47s for a group of insurgents halfway around the world. As they sat together at the restaurant amid an array of gold-painted Buddhas, Hoffmaster promised to get Jack everything he wanted–and more — to overthrow the Communist government of Laos.

That conversation, along with as many as 30 others both in person and over the phone, served as a road map to an astonishing and thoroughly implausible plot to overthrow the government of Laos– a government toward which the United States is officially neutral, despite its deplorable record of abuse of the native Hmong. These fiercely independent people, who still live in the mountain jungles of Laos and who, historically, have had little to do with the lowland Lao, are now said to number less than 15,000. They are also said to be the target of a brutal military campaign that can be traced back to the 1960s, when the Hmong sided with the Americans in a CIA-supported “secret” war against both the Laotian and North Vietnamese Communists. 

As news of the arrests of Vang Pao and the other defendants spread, the tens of thousands of Hmong whose families had come to the United States via refugee camps in Thailand, mostly under the Refugee Act of 1980, expressed shock and disbelief. Who could have authorized such a sting? they asked. Was the Bush administration trying to curry favor and good trade relations with the government of Laos–human rights be damned? And if the motive wasn’t political, why didn’t the Justice Department simply pick up the phone and call Jack or the general to explain that sending arms to Laos was against the law? That might have nipped the whole scheme in the bud, saved hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and freed the ATF to pursue real terrorists. But, of course, that’s not the way sting operations work. 
 
“The arrest of General Vang Pao is unjust because half of his people died for this country during the Vietnam War,” said Pobtusa Thao, a 37-year-old Hmong nurse whom I interviewed in 2008 at a Sacramento rally in support of the defendants. “No matter what he did, they cannot put this guy in jail and lock him up until he dies.”
 
Philip Smith, the director of Lao Veterans of America in Washington, D.C., whose wife is Hmong, went further. “I feel very strongly that the U.S. government should immediately drop the case,” he told me. “It’s a farce, a horrible farce.”

The feds weren’t buying. Not then, anyway.

“The simple fact of the matter is that the law of the United States, going back nearly to the founding of the Republic, is that private citizens cannot lawfully undertake [hostile] actions in foreign countries,” said McGregor W. Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, whose office worked closely with the ATF on the sting operation. “In other words, foreign policy is the province exclusively of the federal government. It is not the province of private citizens. And these folks–of their own volition — developed a plan, contacted persons who could help them carry out the plan, and took very real steps in furtherance of that plan, all of which is in violation of federal law.”

Despite McGregor’s stance, a year later, for reasons the feds did not disclose, the government dropped all charges against Gen. Vang Pao, who had spoken only once to Hoffmaster, when the agent had taken him and several other alleged conspirators to see some sample weapons Hoffmaster had stored in his van, parked near the Thai restaurant in Sacramento.

Gen. Vang Pao’s lawyer, John Keker, told another reporter in 2009 that the decision to drop the charges was a full retreat by government. “It’s a reflection that the government recognized this was a deeply flawed prosecution,” Mr. Keker said.

According to that reporter, Gen. Vang Pao, who was 79 at the time the case was dropped and had been living in Southern California, under house arrest, told his lawyer that he was grateful and relieved that the government finally recognized his innocence but was concerned that several of his friends — and former co-fighters in Laos — were still under indictment.

Several of the defendants named in the new indictment work with Laotian-American groups in the Central Valley of California.

Harrison Ulrich Jack, a West Point graduate and retired lieutenant colonel from the California National Guard, is still under indictment.

But the big kahuna in the case, the one the feds hoped to nail, was Vang Pao, who began his storied military career as a teenager, carrying messages during World War II for the Free French resistance in Indochina. Later, he trained as an officer for the Royal Lao Army to fight alongside the French against Hanoi’s Viet Minh invasion of his country. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the early 1960s, with American troops starting to pour into the region, he had achieved enough prominence to become the CIA’s point man in Laos. A brilliant tactician and military strategist, he and his soldiers–some as young as ten years old–kept the Communists at bay until U.S. forces pulled out of Laos in June 1973.
 
A year later, with the Communists closing in, more than 10,000 Hmong flocked to Vang Pao’s key air base at Long Chien, desperate to board planes that would take them to safety. But there was no evacuation plan. After the government fell, the Communists promised to abide by a 1973 cease-fire agreement forbidding “acts of revenge and discrimination” against those who had cooperated with the Americans. But it wasn’t long before the Communists openly declared their intent to wipe out the Hmong. To escape, thousands of Hmong risked the dangerous climb over rugged mountains surrounding the Plain of Jarres region to reach refugee camps across the Mekong River in Thailand. In all, 40 percent of Vang Pao’s 40,000-man army was killed, and no doubt many more died trying to escape.
 
Vang Pao’s own departure was quite different: Because of his relationship with the CIA, he was whisked away on a special flight out of Laos. He had already sent two of his wives and their children to Thailand; the rest of his family would come later. After spending a number of harsh, cold winters in Montana, he eventually ended up in Orange County, with additional homes in Fresno and Minneapolis.
 
Once in the states, Vang Pao, who seemed to have plenty of money, helped create a chain of Lao Family Community centers to assist the thousands of Hmong refugees who flocked to America. He also used his influence to mediate clan disputes and to pressure both the federal and local governments to provide more services to his people. Most of the refugees were penniless when they arrived in the United States, spoke no English, and were traumatized by years of war. Meanwhile, at traditional Hmong festivals and celebrations, Vang Pao continued to express hope for a return to a democratic Laos someday. According to news accounts, he even tried to raise money by offering for sale prospective commissions and political appointments to the democratically elected government he envisioned.
 
But Vang Pao appeared to have a major change of heart in 2003, when he offered to establish economic ties with the Laotian government–at least implicitly recognizing its rule. The decision set off intense debate within the Hmong community in America–and it may have led to the torching of the Minnesota home of one of the general’s many sons. 

Did Vang Pao have another change of heart in 2007, when, as the prosecution alleges, he endorsed the overthrow plans, dubbed Operation POPCORN?
 
No way, said Keker, Vang’s lawyer, who maintained that his client never was part of any conspiracy to retake Laos. “The general was absolutely appalled at what Lo Cha [Thao — one of the alleged conspirators] was even talking about” in early 2007. Keker added: “I think Harrison Jack was a seriously deluded man. The stuff about how they’re going to walk into Laos without firing [a shot] was just ridiculous. It was bar talk. But what’s offensive about it was they arrested a bunch of people who weren’t even in the bar. [Vang Pao and others] didn’t have anything to do with [the plot], and disapproved of it, and thought it was nuts and thought the guys were nuts. And they were nuts.”

Be that as it may, Vang Pao’s arrest and legal battle against the charges took a toll on his health. Already suffering from diabetes and heart disease, after his initial release he endured electronically monitored home detention, allowed to communicate only with family members, physicians, and lawyers. Although the conditions of his and the other co-defendants’ bail were loosened substantially, the humiliation and sense of betrayal by the American government was profound.

Some of those feelings changed when the government dropped its charges against him.

“He was just overwhelmed and there were tears of joy, of course,” Chi Neng Vang, the youngest of Vang Pao’s 25 children, told a Twin Cities StarTribune reporter. “You could see it was a rebirth for him at that moment. We all hugged. He was acting like he was somebody again instead of someone who he knew he wasn’t. He’s been living in this dark period of time, and now we can finally move on with our lives.”

Gen. Vang Pao was a free man and an American citizen when he died on Jan. 6 of this year.

We’ll probably never know what, if any, his role was in the alleged plot to overthrow the government of Laos, a plot that most likely would have been quickly forgotten had it not been encouraged by the ATF sting designed to send the alleged plotters to jail.

But the Hmong community will, no doubt, continue to wonder what the government was thinking when it authorized Operation Tarnished Eagle.

From a broader perspective, one important question suggested by this case is whether operations such as Tarnished Eagle send the right signal to our allies abroad, especially in a time of war, when, in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and beyond, the U.S. government regularly enlists ethnic minorities to fight with it to bring about peace and democracy.
 
Do operations such as Tarnished Eagle generate trust of the USA?

Philip Smith of the Lao Veterans of America thought not in 2008.

“How can they trust the CIA or the National Security Council to be sincere if this is how America treats the Hmong and is treating General Vang Pao?” He added, “It has the stench of betrayal that hangs over the Bush administration, that hangs over the CIA. Is this how America treats its friends?”

Vang Pao is not MY hero, and I wish he’d told the CIA in the 1960s to look elsewhere for help in fighting its secret and doomed war in Laos. That didn’t happen. He did help, and thousands of his people died because of it. So why, thirty-some years after the war did the American government run a sting on the man who did its bidding for 13 years? As I’ve said, it would have been far cheaper, not to mention compassionate, for the ATF to call Vang Pao or Harrison Jack or the other Hmong “plotters,” thank them for their service to this country in the Vietnam War and tell them to drop their improbable overthrow plot.

In the meantime, Hmong in Laos people are still being persecuted by the Lao government. And Hmong Americans continue to face incredible challenges making it in the U.S.A. Poverty, illiteracy and racism hold back many Hmong Americans.

It’s a strange story and a sad story. It’s an American story. And the beat goes on.