Marine Corps veteran Michael Reagan, creator of the Fallen Heroes Project, presents a folded American flag to Yee Hang Vang Tuesday in honor of Vang’s uncle, Say Chao Thao, who served in the CIA’s secret army in Laos during the Vietnam War. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Marine Corps veteran Michael Reagan, creator of the Fallen Heroes Project, presents a folded American flag to Yee Hang Vang Tuesday in honor of Vang’s uncle, Say Chao Thao, who served in the CIA’s secret army in Laos during the Vietnam War. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Honors for Hmong man who served with CIA secret army in Laos

Vietnam veterans and Gold Star parents attended an unofficial ceremony at the Hero’s Cafe in Lynnwood.

He wasn’t there Tuesday when veterans at the Hero’s Cafe in Lynnwood commemorated his service during the Vietnam War. Say Chao Thao, a California man who died in 2017 at age 70, was one of thousands of Hmong recruited by the CIA for the agency’s secret war in Laos.

“Thank you everyone for this great honor,” said Marysville’s Yee Hang Vang, Thao’s 31-year-old nephew, before Marine Corps veteran Michael G. Reagan presented him with an American flag.

Reagan, who served in Vietnam, is an Edmonds artist who through his Fallen Heroes Project has given 6,200 hand-drawn portraits to loved ones of military members killed in service to their country.

Tuesday’s ceremonial flag-folding and presentation was unofficial — but meaningful all the same. Hydee Hernandez, who learned about the Hmong soldier because she works with Vang, helped organize the presentation. She volunteers at the Hero’s Cafe, a monthly gathering for veterans at the Verdant Community Wellness Center in Lynnwood, and helps with the Honor Flight Network and other groups serving veterans.

Members of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 423 and other vets from as far as Oak Harbor were among 100 or so crowded into the Verdant meeting room. A POW/MIA flag draped on an empty chair recognized Americans unaccounted for from all wars, and the ceremony began with the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Say Chao Thao, who served in the CIA’s secret war in Laos, died in 2017 at age 70. His service was honored Tuesday in a ceremony at the Hero’s Cafe in Lynnwood. (Family Photo)

Say Chao Thao, who served in the CIA’s secret war in Laos, died in 2017 at age 70. His service was honored Tuesday in a ceremony at the Hero’s Cafe in Lynnwood. (Family Photo)

“He served with humbleness,” said Vang, explaining that his uncle was part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Hmong force. The secret army worked along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to hinder North Vietnam’s supply line, conducted air strikes, and rescued downed U.S. pilots during the Vietnam War.

Thao was headquartered at Long Tieng, also called Lima Site 20A. The air base in Laos, operated by the CIA, became a secret city of some 40,000 people by the late 1960s. It didn’t appear on maps during what the agency describes as “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”

Vang was the first of his Laotian family to be born in the United States. Say Chao Thao and Vang’s father were brothers. “My father was too young to be involved” in the secret army, Vang said. His uncle, he said, was part of the CIA’s force from about 1967 “till the end” in 1975.

After Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975, the Hmong were persecuted and killed in mass numbers, in what’s known as the Hmong genocide.

Vang said his uncle and other relatives fled to a refugee camp in Thailand. Thao had helped many others cross safely into Thailand, according to his obituary.

By 1979, he and his wife and two children had flown to San Diego. They had four more children. For two decades, he was involved with the San Diego Hmong Alliance Church, and later settled in Modesto, California.

“I’m forever grateful for his service,” said Vang, a community corrections officer with the state Department of Corrections. “I wouldn’t be here if not for him.”

Local Gold Star parents, those who paid the highest price, were also at Tuesday’s event.

Myra Rintamaki holds a photograph of her lost son, Steven, and talks to a packed room Tuesday. Behind her, Linda Swanberg spoke of her son Shane, and Brian Starr (right) lost his son, Jeffrey. All the young men were Marines killed in Iraq. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Myra Rintamaki holds a photograph of her lost son, Steven, and talks to a packed room Tuesday. Behind her, Linda Swanberg spoke of her son Shane, and Brian Starr (right) lost his son, Jeffrey. All the young men were Marines killed in Iraq. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

“I honor all our fallen heroes,” said Myra Rintamaki. Her son, Steven Rintamaki, was a 21-year-old Marine corporal from Lynnwood killed in Iraq in 2004. “It’s a struggle to move through the grieving process,” said Rintamaki, adding that part of her journey is to serve veterans.

Brian Starr spoke of meeting President George W. Bush after his son, Marine Cpl. Jeffrey Starr, was killed in Iraq in 2005. Bush, he said, had cited in a commencement speech a letter the young Starr had written to be read in case of his death. Reciting part of his son’s letter, the Snohomish man said: “Others have died for my freedom, now this is my mark.”

And Kirkland’s Linda Swanberg talked about her son, Marine Lance Cpl. Shane Swanberg, who was killed at his base just 10 days after deployment to Iraq. “He was so proud of what he accomplished,” she said.

“Gold Star families are who we would have left behind if we hadn’t made it home,” Reagan told the crowd.

Hernandez, who didn’t serve in the military but now devotes her time to veterans causes, said that Say Chao Thao “fought for us and with us” but wasn’t recognized.

“Society can forget, but a veteran will never forget,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Hero’s Cafe

The Hero’s Cafe is an informal monthly gathering place for all veterans at the Verdant Community Wellness Center, 4710 196th St. SW, Lynnwood. It’s scheduled for 9 a.m.-1 p.m. the fourth Tuesday of each month. Veterans find social connections, information about benefits and resources, food and coffee.

Information: https://verdanthealth.org/events/event/heros-cafe/

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