FRESNO, Calif. — Thousands of sobbing mourners in military uniform and traditional Hmong dress paid their final respects Friday to the late Gen. Vang Pao, a Laotian leader and 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 of senior military and civilian officials reviewed the request and unanimously recommended that officials decline it, Army spokesman Gary Tallman said. He declined to discuss the reason for the decision.
It was not immediately clear where the remains would go after 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.
Thousands of his soldiers and their families were granted refugee status in the United States, including about 30,000 Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong who moved to Fresno.
"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 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.