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February 22, 1998


[]SACRAMENTO – Chia Yang lay in the dark and waited for her husband to fall asleep. Then she got up and changed her clothes.  She slipped past the bedrooms of her son Yia, 21, and daughter Janie, 14, sleeping in their American beds, steeped in American culture.

Chia Yang had endured war in Southeast Asia, walked miles through rotting corpses and lived four years in suffocating refugee camps. A Hmong tribeswoman from the mountains of Laos, she was 36 before she first saw a water faucet.

But at 54, after bearing seven children and more heartache than most, she looped a cord around her throat, tied it to an overhead beam, and jumped off the trunk of her husband’s Toyota.

She ended her life because she believed the United States betrayed her by cutting her family’s welfare benefits.

About 40,000 Hmong, including Chia Yang’s husband and her two brothers, were enlisted by the CIA from 1961 to 1974 as guerrillas in the Vietnam War. In return, they were given rice and an average salary of $3 a month.

The Hmongs say the American government also promised to take care of them, like any other war veteran, then reneged.

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cut food stamps to some 800,000 legal immigrants – including an estimated 20,000 Laotians – as part of welfare reform.

Blamed the government

A month later, Chia Yang was dead. Illiterate, she left suicide cassettes blaming the government.   “She lost her country because we fought on the American side.   Then she loses her benefits because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen,” said her 30-year-old son, Toby Vue, sitting in his Sacramento home.

Panic and despair have prompted two other suicides, community leaders say – one in Fresno, Calif., home to the largest U.S. Hmong population, another in Wisconsin.  “The whole community is at the point of desperation. They say, `We fought for your country, we died for your country.’ Assistance from the government is what they were promised,” said Victor Hwang of the Asian Law Caucus of San Francisco.

Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, about 180,000 mostly Hmong Laotians have immigrated to America. They came here speaking an obscure language with no written form. Their main skills were farming mountain slopes and waging guerrilla war.

More than half landed on federal assistance. An estimated 35 percent to 45 percent remain there, nearly all of them older people.

Unlike their children, they couldn’t assimilate into American culture.

“It’s very difficult for older people,” said Vue. “In Laos, if you have a piece of land, you can survive. Here, they cannot. My father is shattered. He thinks America really let him down.”

Clinton’s food-stamp plea

President Clinton, in his January State of the Union address, asked Congress to reinstate food stamps to legal immigrants by December.

That is too far off, Hmong advocates say.

“Some people are talking about wiping out their whole families because they feel so bad, and betrayed, and not worth anything anymore,” said Yi Xiong of the California Statewide Lao Hmong Coalition.

Philip Smith directs the 11,000-member Lao Veterans of America in Washington, D.C. He is pushing a bill making it easier for Laotians to become U.S. citizens.

“This is really not the way this country should be treating people who gave their lives during the Vietnam War,” he said.

CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield declined comment.

Jim Parker is one of the few surviving CIA advisers who served in Laos. He made no promises to the Hmong, he says. He does not consider them veterans.

“When they talk about fighting and dying for the Americans, it was a common enemy we were fighting,” said Parker, who now writes books and lives in North Carolina. “They were already fighting the communists when we went there. I don’t feel like we abandoned them.”

The United States is not the best home for them, he said.

“They’re a Stone Age people.”

The Hmong were recruited – some say drafted – by Gen. Vang Pao, the highest-ranking Hmong in the Lao military. Pao also worked for the CIA.

Laos, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, was pivotal to Pentagon strategists fending off communism. But under a 1962 treaty, Laos also was off-limits to U.S. military personnel.

So the CIA waged covert war there, using the Hmong to gather intelligence, rescue downed American pilots and guard radar and surveillance installations.

The Hmong suffered heavy casualties. An estimated 30,000 soldiers and civilians died before the last Americans pulled out in 1974. The victorious communists hunted the Hmong in a genocidal rage, executing thousands for collaborating with the Americans.

Family started walking

Chia Yang and her husband, Sua Chai Vue, gathered their children, a few pounds of rice and started walking to Thailand, where refugee camps had opened at the border.

For nine days they stumbled barefoot over jungle trails and dead villagers.

Toby Vue was 7. “My parents said, `Don’t look at it. Keep walking.’ ”

At the camps, the family waited four years before entering America. They were woefully unprepared.

Vue’s father rarely found work. The family lived on federal assistance from the day they arrived.

They lived first in San Diego, then Sacramento, where Toby Vue became a registered nurse. The son bought two modest tract homes in Sacramento, renting one to his parents for $460 a month.

The 1996 Welfare Reform Act took effect in September. And so began the last year of Chia Yang’s life.

The first government letter warned that her disability payments of $640 would cease. That would leave only her husband’s $400 welfare check and $180 in food stamps for the couple and their two youngest children to live on each month.

Chia Yang panicked, then slid into depression. She already suffered from high blood pressure and kidney problems.

She tried to become a U.S. citizen, but twice failed because of her poor English.

“I’m worthless,” she told her son. “Maybe they’re right. I’m just like a dummy.” For the first and only time, she spoke of killing herself.

“Don’t talk like that,” her son said. “I will take care of you.”

“She didn’t want to be a burden,” Vue said. “She would rather have died.”

Another letter came in the spring. Disability benefits wouldn’t be cut after all. Chia Yang suffered a stroke in April, but recovered by pushing a walker through the house every day. Vue thinks the government’s change of heart boosted her spirits.

But four months later, when the family’s food stamps were halved, she was inconsolable. It had all become too confusing. She feared her family would starve. Her son took her to a new doctor, who prescribed the antidepressant Prozac.

`Like the sun was shining’

She felt better. “It was like the sun was shining,” Vue said. He had no hint of what was to come.

Vue visited Oct. 15, the day before his mother chose to die. Her eldest son sat next to her. “I just need to rest a little bit,” she said. “I’ll be OK tomorrow.”

She watched TV with her husband. They went to bed about midnight.

At 3:30 a.m. her husband of 33 years woke alone. He checked the bathroom, the kitchen, the back yard. Then he opened the garage door.

Her family found two cassette tapes in a little brown suitcase holding her tribe’s traditional funeral clothes.

On tape she spoke of her Supplemental Security Income and her Aid to Families with Dependent Children. “What if I lose my SSI?” She asked. “What if my husband and children lose their AFDC grant? If they stop my grant I’m going to die anyway.”

In the Hmong language that sounds almost like singing, she addressed each of her children by name.   “I am very sorry I had to bring you to this country and leave you behind. It feels like I’m sitting in a pot of boiling water every day.”