There are 58,261 names engraved on the cold, black granite panels of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It could have been worse.
To the west of the battlefields in Vietnam during the 60's and early 70's, across the border in the neutral country of Laos, another war raged. Half of all tactical air sorties flown by the U.S Air Force in Southeast Asia during this period were in Laos. It was not a side show. Yet neither the Americans nor the North Vietnamese claimed to have any troops or bases in Laos. The North Vietnamese lied. The Americans were only slightly more truthful. They didn't have any ground troops but they did have extensive CIA operations which they covered up by declaring them to be secret. So, who was doing the fighting?
It was the Hmong, a minority ethnic group who had survived for a thousand years in their mountain sanctuaries through slash and burn agriculture, and a fierce adherence to their culture. They valued freedom and family; and just wanted to be left alone. They were a primitive people without a written language who lived in a primitive land. When the American CIA discovered this group of ardent anti-communists they enlisted them as their proxy army.
In late 1966, in one of the thousands of unrecorded small unit engagements of the war, a U.S Army private of American Indian heritage disappeared in the chaos of battle in South Vietnam and was mistakenly declared KIA. It was the Hmong who rescued him and as he convalesced in their remote jungle village he thought he was witnessing glimpses of his own past-a past which had been handed down to him by old men sitting around campfires retelling the myths and legends that had been passed down to them. But there was no romance involved with life in the mountains of Laos. This was a life of brutal reality; one filled with pain, suffering, despair, and death. And just as with his own history, when the end came for the Hmong it was similarly tragic.
The Hmong had saved George Downwind's life. His debt had been incurred in the past. The payments, both principle and interest, would be applied to the future.