Thousands of sobbing mourners in military uniform and traditional Hmong dress paid their final respects Friday to the late Gen. Vang Pao, a U.S. ally in the Vietnam War whose proposed burial at Arlington National Cemetery was denied by the Army.
A stately procession marked the opening of an elaborate, six-day funeral service in Fresno, a city with a large Hmong population.
Vang Pao's extended family — including his 25 surviving children — a member of the Royal Lao family in exile, and the former CIA officials who recruited him to lead a covert guerrilla army during the Vietnam War followed his flag-draped casket through packed city streets.
Once the casket was lowered, a rifle team fired volleys into the air, a color guard presented Laotian, American and California flags, and bagpipes sounded as a flight team flew over the mourners who clutched cameras, tissues and sticks of incense.
The grandeur of the ceremony, however, was dampened by news that the Army had denied the Arlington burial request.
California Democratic Reps. Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza had submitted the request on behalf of Vang Pao's family shortly after his Jan. 6 death, saying the general had earned the honor of being buried alongside American soldiers.
A board comprised of senior military and civilian officials reviewed the request and unanimously recommended that officials decline the burial waiver, Army spokesman Gary Tallman said.
Army Secretary John McHugh carefully reviewed the matter and accepted the board recommendation, said Tallman, who declined to discuss the reason for the decision.
"Obviously to everyone who is here today to honor Gen. Vang Pao, this is very disappointing," said Costa, adding that he planned to seek a review of the decision-making process with McHugh. "He is not just a hero to the Hmong people. He is a hero to those American men and women who served with him in Vietnam."
Family members could not immediately be reached for comment on the Army decision.
It was not immediately clear where the remains would go following the funeral, given the Army decision. Family members had discussed a possible burial in a Santa Ana cemetery near one of the general's homes.
Vang Pao, who commanded CIA-funded guerrillas in the jungles of Laos, is revered as a leader and father figure by the Hmong and Lao people he helped to resettle across the globe after Saigon fell. He died at age 81 near Fresno after battling pneumonia.
"There will not be anyone like Father anymore because he was truly a godsend," said Chai Vang, one of the general's 32 children. "All we can do is unite the community and form partnerships around the world to carry out the work he began."
Fresno, a city of about half a million people in the state's agricultural heartland, has pulled out all the stops for the ceremony. Businesses are gearing up to supply travelers with food and help them take part in the historic gathering of the clans.
Hmong spiritual guides and funeral specialists burned incense, chanted songs, and played bamboo wind instruments to lead Vang Pao's soul back to his childhood home in Longhay, Laos, where his spirit can don the placental jacket to be worn on its journey toward reincarnation.
On Saturday morning, his family will present chicken, rice, drinks and paper money for the general's voyage into the afterlife. His relatives will then cook and serve food to funeral guests, making hot meals of the animals sacrificed in his honor in tents outside the convention center, where the ceremonies were being held.
Thong Chai, who manages a Hmong grocery store on Fresno's gritty east side, said his family has donated a pig to the general's family.
"The general is like a hero for us, and we've got to help his family because it's hard to provide all this food for everyone who's coming," he said, looking over the pallets of coconut juice and white gourd beverage he was preparing.
Vang Pao's death left many issues unresolved for those who fought alongside him in the Vietnam War then came to America because of his advocacy.
Shoua Vang was among those who traveled across the country to take in the Hmong and English-language speeches and ceremonies.
"We would not be here in this country without him," said Shoua Vang, 52, of Rockford, Ill.. "He is the Hmong leader and the Hmong father. I don't know who will lead our people in the future."
Once Saigon fell, thousands of his soldiers languished in refugee camps in Thailand until they were granted refugee status in the U.S., including about 30,000 Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong who moved to Fresno.
In 2007, Vang Pao and 11 others were accused of plotting to violently overthrow the communist government of Laos, sparking a 3½ year legal battle. Vang Pao was dropped from the case in 2009, and federal prosecutors said suddenly last month they were dismissing all remaining charges in the interests of justice, only days after the general's passing.
"When we were over there, our blood ran with theirs, and we became friends," said Dean Murphy, a brigadier general with the Joint Service Honors Command, a volunteer group of military retirees and former service members that presided over the military funeral rites. "When the Hmong came here, our tears flowed with theirs and today, we mourn our friend together."
Earlier this week, a phalanx of the general's former recruits lined up in their fatigues to lay a wreath of yellow daisies before Vang Pao's portrait, which lay against a solemn monument to Laotian veterans on the lawn of the county courthouse.
Most were well into their 60s, but the aging secret army still snapped to attention as their former commanders cried out in Hmong for them to salute in unison.
"We fought in the American war, and if we didn't join that war there might be thousands more Americans dead," said Col. Wangyee Vang, president of the nonprofit Lao Veterans of America.