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John Keker Speaks at General Vang Pao's Memorial Service

Eastern District of California Blog

General Vang Pao, the leader of more than 145,000 Hmong-Americans, is known as the hero of the Central Intelligence Agency’s long-ago secret war in the jungles of Laos. To an uprooted nation of Hmong refugees, he was regarded as something near a king, and so was given an elaborate six-day memorial service to recognize his remarkable leadership.

Hmong leaders and dignitaries, U.S. congressmen, state senators, and retired C.I.A. agents paid their respects to the General. Joining them was John Keker, who spoke at the memorial service. Mr. Keker led the team which represented the General pro bono after he was indicted for conspiring to overthrow the government of Laos. Mr. Keker secured his release and convinced the U.S. government to drop its charges.  

John Keker’s Remarks at the Funeral of General Vang Pao

I am John Keker, the lawyer who represented General Vang Pao when he was wrongly and undeservedly accused by the United States Government.

I am honored to be asked by his family to speak, and will talk about the last few years of his life, when this unjust prosecution occurred.

I met General Vang Pao when he was 77 years old, in a Sacramento hospital, where he was recovering from heart surgery and heart problems. He was hooked up to monitors and drip machines, barely conscious, and being guarded by armed police so he wouldn’t escape.

I was there because two carloads of his sons, men from St. Paul, from Orange County, from Dallas, from all over America, had come to my office to tell me that they had agreed I should represent their father.

They explained to me what he had done in Laos, and what he had done here in the United States.

Since I had fought in Vietnam, in the United States Marine Corps, I knew what he had done there. He had protected me, and other American soldiers and Marines, including my brother, who also fought there as a Marine, in Laos, where Marines weren’t supposed to be. The North Vietnamese Army we fought in the late 1960s was far weaker than it wanted to be, because so many of its divisions were tied up fighting the Hmong Army led by General Vang Pao.

So, I said yes to the sons who asked me to represent him, and my life, and the lives of my colleagues who worked on the case, became much richer for it.

I have met two great men in my life. One was Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the United States who ended segregation, by writing the legal opinion that says all America’s children should go to school together, no matter their race or religion or where they were born.

The other was General Vang Pao. He was a great warrior, in a world where there aren’t many. Something - fate, luck, a God - kept him alive, enduring so many wounds, plane crashes, helicopter crashes, something kept him alive as he led the Secret Hmong Army in Laos.

General Vang Pao stayed alive because he was meant to be more than a great warrior. Like George Washington, like Genghis Kahn, some great warriors become great leaders of their people, in war and in peace, bringing tribes and factions to work together and be strong. He was that kind of leader.

When I met General Vang Pao in the hospital, he was fighting a battle that was new for him.

He wanted peace and respect between then Hmong and the Lao people.

He wanted harmony among Hmong in this country.

Some people were raising questions about his leadership, questioning whether his views were the right ones.

So to be accused by the United States Government he had served so faithfully and well, to be prosecuted for something that not only he never did, but that he disapproved of, was very hard for him.

Eventually the ignorant prosecutors who brought the case saw that it was completely wrong, that General Vang Pao was innocent.

But even when they realized it, and dismissed the case, they never admitted they had accused a great man wrongfully. For that they should be ashamed.

But Buddhists, and some of us who aren’t Buddhists, know that nothing under the sun is all good or all bad.

There were some good things that came from this unfair prosecution. The Hmong people rose up as one. They came from all over America to Sacramento, to demonstrate peacefully every time there was a major court appearance. In black pants and white shirts, carrying American flags, young and old, men and women, thousands of them, rose up to show their respect for and solidarity with their father, their leader, General Vang Pao.

And that demonstration made General Vang Pao very happy, and proud, and grateful to his people, and made his burden tolerable. He knew that Hmong culture would survive in America, with or without him. So on this sad occasion, when we gather to mourn General Vang Pao, you should be glad that you recently had the chance to show him, while he was alive, your love and respect, and to honor him in life.

The last time I saw him, after the case was over, he gave me this ring, which I carry in memory of him. Each of you have your memories of him, which you carry every day, as I carry this ring. Our memories are different, but they all lead to a good place - he made us better, he made us care more about others, he made us proud of who we are.

For that I am very grateful.

Thank you for inviting me, and thank you Xa Vang for translating.