As we head into Memorial Day weekend, we bring you a story about a man who was a hero to his people and the many sisters who loved him. It takes us from the jungles of Laos to farmlands of California's Central Valley. Its part of our series The Hidden World of Girls, produced with the Kitchen Sisters.

Here's reporter Doualy Xaykaothao with her story, The Sisters of General Vang Pao.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: As an American teenager, whenever I asked grown-ups about the Vietnam War, few wanted to discuss it. As an adult, it was just as hard to talk about the war. That's why I never told friends and neighbors about my family's history.

You see, the Vietnam War took place in my family's backyard. My family lived in northeastern Laos, in Nong Het, right on the border with Vietnam. When the CIA needed an ally, they found a charismatic, passionate young man, unafraid to die. That man was my great uncle, the late General Vang Pao. He led a guerrilla army into battle against communist troops along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, relieving U.S. forces of that burden and saving American lives. The general personally trained his irregular soldiers.

VP, as he was known to the CIA, died earlier this year at the age of 81. Some 40,000 mourners converged in downtown Fresno, California to attend his elaborate six-day funeral.

(Soundbite of a funeral dirge)

Unidentified Man: (Singing)

XAYKAOTHAO: Fresno is home to a large population of refugees from Laos. To family, friends and many in the CIA, VP was a military hero, but I hardly knew him.

Only after his death, did I find this recording.

General VANG PAO (Royal Lao Army): (Hmong language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: VP says, when he was 13, he saw a family from his village unable to pay their taxes. The live pig they offered was not enough for the tax collector. VP cried, witnessing this humiliating moment. The tears kept falling until dawn, and when the sun rose, he left his family without a word and went to join the French army, which was the occupying colonial force at the time.

From that day on, he says, he devoted the rest of his life to freeing Hmong people from the chains of poverty.

I never knew his story. I attended his funeral out of respect for one of his 10 sisters, my Grandmother, Neng Cha. She died four years ago. But people used to tell me, if she had been born a boy, she would have been the one tapped by the CIA to help them during the Vietnam War. In truth, Grandma did believe she would have been a better commander than her brother.

She was afraid of no one. She even claimed to scare ghosts. This was a woman of rare qualities and piercing words. One time, during a visit back to Laos, I woke up especially early to capture the tranquility of that morning.

(Soundbite of rooster crowing, rain and a barking dog)

XAYKAOTHAO: The monsoon rains had just begun, the farm animals were waking and Grandma, well, she did what she does best, speak her mind. I decided to record her.

(Soundbite of a conversation)

Ms. NENG CHA: (Hmong language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: (Hmong language spoken)

I'm not like you, she says, giving me her usual angry face. You call yourself a journalist, fooling around like this. It's crap

She didn't mince words. Smiling: Not in her DNA. Love: She loves to hate. Shower...

(Soundbite of laughter)

XAYKAOTHAO: ...nope. In fact, she was proud that she smelled. In her youth, she was so tough that she'd ride on horseback, down deep valleys before dawn, to barter alone with Chinese and Burmese merchants.

This got me wondering about the surviving sisters of General Vang Pao. Would they be like my Grandmother? What were their lives like with a brother like VP? He is survived by sisters Lee, Xai, Ying and Der.

Lee lives on a farm in Fresno, California.

(Soundbite of barking dog)

XAYKAOTHAO: She's in her 70's, but tills the land much as she did back in Laos.

LEE: (Hmong language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Like a traditional Hmong girl, she begins her story with the name of her parents, their occupation, farming and the name of their village. Lee starts talking about her brother, and then tells me a secret. Her brother did not marry eight wives to unite the many Hmong clans, as legend has it. It was, she says, for love.

LEE: (Hmong language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: He kept searching, Lee says, for someone like his first wife, apparently his true love, who died unexpectedly. Some allege she was poisoned so other clans could offer VP their daughters for political reasons.

(Soundbite of a conversation)

XAYKAOTHAO: There are so many more secrets and tales from the past, so Lee and I call on the eldest sister. Her name is Ying, and she claims she's about a hundred. She lives just a few miles from the farm.

(Soundbite of a conversation)

XAYKAOTHAO: Ying is weak, has a bad knee, but manages to smile constantly when she talks to me.

YING: (Hmong language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: Remember to love us, okay, she says.

She tells me her brother loved them dearly, so much that he never raised his voice at them. The one thing he was firm about, Ying says, was for them to dress down. He didn't want them to attract suitors or to get married. And when they did, VP took their husbands away to become soldiers alongside him. Some died in battle.

(Soundbite of a funeral dirge)

Unidentified Man: (Singing)

XAYKAOTHAO: At the funeral hall, I meet the other two surviving sisters, Xai and Der.

XAI: (Hmong language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

XAYKAOTHAO: That's Xai, full of energy and youth in her late 70's. When I turn on my recorder, she says this is her chance to become famous. But when the questions begin, the laughter stops and tears start to fall.

XAI: (Hmong language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: When there was a funeral, a party, or a special dinner, says Aunt Xai, he would be invited to speak. His voice will never be heard again. There will never be another like him.

The youngest sister, Der, agrees. She says the Hmong in the U.S. are now without leadership, that her brother was the uniting force behind 18 clans.

DER: (Hmong language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: So many stories to tell, she says, but right now we are in mourning.

This is the first time the sisters of General Vang Pao have been asked to speak publicly about their brother, and about their lives. I tell them I promise to be the keeper of their stories, so they smile proudly and agree to meet again soon.

For NPR NEWS, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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