Thursday, June 21, 2007

Madison’s Vang Pao Elementary School: On and Off

In the mountainous region of Laos, the Hmong people were American allies during the Vietnam War. They rescued downed American fliers and attacked convoys moving supplies from North Vietnam to the Viet Cong along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. It is likely that Vang Pao’s “Secret Army” also carried out covert missions in neighboring Vietnam. Some Americans believe that Vang Pao financed arms and leadership though the opium trade with either the knowledge or complicity of the Central Intelligence Agency.

It is undisputed that the CIA recruited Vang Pao because he had already become legendary as a guerilla fighter against the Japanese during World War II and against the French during their ill-fated efforts. When the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam and the Communist Pathet Lao swept to power in Laos in 1975, the U.S. Congress cut funds to the “Secret Army” and many were killed by Communists. Vang Pao led survivors to Thailand and then to North America.

Public and private U.S. relief agencies settled many Hmong people in the Midwest. There are so many Hmong people in Wisconsin, they are the third largest minority group in the state and the largest in many individual state cities. Official Wisconsin state notices and signs are often in three languages: English, Spanish and Hmong.

To please the Hmong community, the Madison School Board voted unanimously to name a new elementary school for Vang Pao, who is regarded by older Hmong people as a cross between George Washington and Ho Chi Minh. Some other Madison public schools are named for Cesar Chavez, Samuel Gompers and Malcolm Shabazz. Hmong community leaders in Madison have already participated in the ceremonial ground-breaking.

When the Hmong people are seen as victims, the tendency by social liberals is to give them something symbolic but when they are viewed as U.S. allies in Vietnam, their anti-anti-Communist reflexes kick in. Misgivings by older Madison Vietnam war protestors about the possible Vang Pao history of drug trade, forced conscription of children and summary executions were ignored. Now 77, Vang Pao has raised millions of dollars among Hmong refugees in the U.S., issuing colorful certificates allowing the bearer to return to Laos in the future when the Communists are no longer in power.

Recent events have made the Madison School Board squirm. In early June, Vang Pao and eight co-conspirators were charged with trying to buy hundreds of AK-47s, shoulder-fired missiles, mines and explosives to topple the Communists who still rule Laos. Their mistake was trying to obtain the arms in California, where they were stung by federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators posing as arms dealers.

Among older Hmong people, attempted shipment of weapons from California to Thailand to be used by dissident Laotian soldiers and mercenaries against the Communists in power actually increases Vang Pao’s stature in their eyes. There have been polite rallies for Vang Pao in front of federal courthouses in several American cities.

About 10 days after the indictments, the Madison School Board unanimously reversed itself to not name the new elementary school for Vang Pao. They are considering naming the school for the neighborhood where it will be located or for retired Madison school administrators and or other celebrities who are still alive and have the possibility of embarrassing them, too. They forgot that most schools are named after someone who has been dead for decades.

If Vang Pao were already dead, the naming decision would have stood. However, he has cheated death many times on the battlefield and in assassination attempts in the U.S., probably ordered by Communists in Laos. For someone who has been so close to death so often, facing federal conspiracy charges is probably less troubling to Vang Pao than to Madison liberals.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A Tearful Farewell

My older son Jens Michaelsen stopped to stay overnight with me in Madison on his way to Seattle, Washington. It was great to see him and hard to see him go. We were both choked up and we hugged several times.

Until he arrived late in the evening on May 31, I do not think I have seen him in person since he graduated from the United States Navy Nuclear Power Training Command “A” school in Charleston, South Carolina in 2004. During the four years that Jens was in Charleston, we talked about once per week by telephone. That is about to change.

United States Navy Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class Jens Michaelsen will be flying from Seattle to Pearl Harbor to join the Pacific Fleet. He will be serving on a Los Angeles-class attack submarine; one of these, the USS Dallas, was immortalized in Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October.” Even the best cell telephone service does not have coverage underwater in the Pacific Ocean. He will celebrate his 22nd birthday at sea in about three weeks.

I can not think of either son without remembering what they were like as infants, toddlers, school children and the young adults they became. Jens was a far better athlete than I was. He was a great soccer and baseball player until the age of about 10, when he became a devoted inline skater. He became a very good swimmer in high school.

It was in math and science where Jens really stood out from his classmates, yet he never flaunted his academic success. I was sitting with some other parents at the swimming awards banquet. When he received a special award for having a 4.0 grade point average, the gasps were audible.

Now Jens is employing his math and science acumen for us. At the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command, Jens was exposed to instructors and classmates that were smarter than him.

How do you know when nuclear propulsion specialists are doing their job well? When there are no reactor accidents. The United States has not lost a nuclear submarine since 1963, when the USS Thresher was lost with all hands in the Atlantic Ocean when a seawater leak shut down the reactor.

Losing the USS Thresher was huge blow to the father of the nuclear fleet, Admiral Hyman Rickover. It was a bigger blow to the 129 hands that were lost at sea and their loved ones. It is a reminder to all submariners that service underwater is not without risk.