COVID-19 claims life of Hmong American leader and Secret War veteran

Tou-Fu Vang is remembered not only for his wartime service but in helping refugees resettle the United States

A man wearing a uniform.
Tou-Fu Vang served as an officer in the Lao army during the Vietnam War.
Courtesy of the Vang family

Through conversations with their family members, colleagues and close friends, MPR News is remembering the lives of the people we’ve lost, too soon, to COVID-19. If you’d like to share the story of someone you’ve lost to COVID-19, please email us at tell@mpr.org.

Updated: Dec. 8, 11 a.m. | Posted Dec. 2, 12 p.m.

A Hmong community leader and former Secret War lieutenant colonel died on Thanksgiving Day after several weeks in the hospital fighting COVID-19.

During the Vietnam War, as the CIA funded a covert operation in neighboring Laos, Tou-Fu Vang served in the Lao army and was assigned to Maj. Gen. Vang Pao. Tou-Fu Vang’s ability to speak English put him at an advantage to help the U.S. Air Force complete operations.

Vang’s son, Tong Vang, said Minnesota’s Hmong community will not only remember his father’s war service, but how he helped people directly.

“He spent much of his career in the States with the refugee resettlement program so a lot of people remember him for that,” Tong Vang said, “because he had a direct impact in their lives in that way as well. It wasn't just through warfare.”

Tong Vang recalled his father’s first military assignment after listening to recordings he gathered from him. He said English language skills gave his father an edge. 

“His first assignment was actually sitting in the backseat of an airplane with an American pilot, and he was pointing to caves and enemy forces to help direct U.S. bombing efforts,” he said. “That was because in ‘69, no one spoke English.”

Tou-Fu Vang left Laos in 1975 and moved to Chicago. He worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for nearly three decades, helping Southeast Asian refugees resettle in Midwest states. He moved to Minnesota in 2010.

Tou-Fu Vang was 76 years old. He is survived by his wife, seven children and several grandchildren. 

His family had a small burial service Tuesday due to the pandemic.

Vang’s son suspects his father contracted the coronavirus after attending another funeral.

“These kinds of decisions regarding a funeral, they’re not easy. We know what traditional funerals are supposed to be like. We know what the demands and requests of our culture and our way of life are,” Tong Vang said. “But these are not normal times, and I would hate to be responsible for hurting the loved ones of others.”

Vang's wife and other children plan to hold a celebration of life later next year in Minnesota when it is safer to gather.

Through conversations with their family members, colleagues and close friends, MPR News is remembering the lives of the people we’ve lost, too soon, to COVID-19. If you’d like to share the story of someone you’ve lost to COVID-19, please email us at tell@mpr.org.

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