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A Minnesota monument will help spread the word about the 'Secret War'

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The lawns in front of the Minnesota Capitol already include memorials to the veterans of a handful of wars. A new addition being unveiled Saturday will tell the story of a more obscure conflict known as the Secret War.

It was a war fought in the Southeast Asian country of Laos through the 1960s and into the mid '70s and many of its veterans eventually wound up in Minnesota.

What was the Secret War?

Laos was officially a neutral country in the days when the U.S. was trying to stop the spread of Soviet-backed communist troops in Asia. But in reality Laos – which is about the size of Minnesota – was a bloody battleground.

The U.S. military was not directly involved, but the CIA sent advisers and trainers to the country for what the agency calls its largest paramilitary operation.

The fighters they recruited and organized were mostly Hmong and Lao villagers. In the mid-1960s there were said to be about 30,000 fighters.

After the U.S. withdrew from the region and communist troops took control of Laos, veterans of the Secret War fled – first to refugee camps then often to America, with many settling in Minnesota.

The idea of a Minnesota memorial to honor those who fought the Secret War is more than a decade old and is finally happening on Saturday.

One Secret War family

Yia Michael Thao remembers the helicopters that came to his village from the front lines. They would land at a central location to drop off the dead bodies that had been collected. Family members would then sort through the corpses to identify them.

Thao told BringMeTheNews he was a child in those days and his father was an officer in the army backed by the U.S. – rising to the rank of Captain.

In 1975 when the war was lost and North Vietnamese troops were bearing down on them, the Thao family crossed the Mekong River into Thailand. They spent a few years in military and refugee camps before a relative living in Minnesota sponsored their immigration to the U.S.

Adjusting to refugee camps and then to a new country was easier for him than for some others says Thao, who arrived in Minnesota at age 13. "To me, a young kid, it was more like an adventure. But it was pretty tough on the elders," he says.

The memorial project

Thao is the treasurer of the Minnesota Memorial to Special Forces in Laos Committee, which led the effort to get a monument to the Secret War built.

He says the idea for the memorial dates back to 1999. It gained a little momentum after Minnesota's first Hmong legislator was elected in 2002 but then languished again. Thao's father, who was also on the committee, died in 2008. Thao says it was important to get the memorial built while veterans of the Secret War were still around to appreciate it.

"This is a monument to say thank you to America and to the veterans who shed blood and gave their lives for our freedom," he says.

Symbolism of the design

Organizers of the memorial project say it's designed to reflect the Hmong, Lao, and Minnesota cultures. On the ground in the plaza where it sits there's a Hmong needlework design. It also features the footprint of an elephant (the kingdom of Laos was known as "The Land of a Million Elephants") and a representation of water signifying Minnesota's lakes.

Emerging from the center is a sprout with petals with images expressing memories of life, war, and relocation.

The unveiling ceremonies will last from 8 a.m. into the early afternoon Saturday, with speakers including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith.

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