ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — We see it on the aging faces and decorated chests. These Hmong-American soldiers who sacrificed so much – so many years ago – in support of America’s secret war effort in Vietnam.

“Everybody just knew about the Vietnam war,” said Lt. Col. Toufu Vang.

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But what most people didn’t know at the time is that the United States was engaged in fighting communist forces in neighboring Laos. The unsanctioned battlefield was an attempt to cut through North Vietnamese supply lines that traveled the Ho Chi Minh trail through northern Laos. The CIA’s “secret war” relied heavily on Hmong soldiers to fight with U.S. Special Forces and to help rescue downed U.S. pilots.

For all their assistance, the Lao people and soldiers paid a heavy toll.

“We lost several-hundred thousand. But just for the Hmong, over 35,000 troops,” Lt. Col. Vang said.

Their deep sacrifice was finally recognized in 1997 with the dedication of a Lao Veteran’s Monument in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

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On Saturday, aging soldiers like Wanglee Vang will be among the Hmong vets traveling to D.C. to remember those who died in Laos.

Speaking through an interpreter, Vang explains, “All our fallen soldiers and leaders, they have lost their lives over there so it is very important for us to go there and honor them.”

A granite memorial is just the beginning of their efforts for recognition and repayment. There’s also an effort to give full Veterans Administration health and burial benefits to those who fought with U.S. soldiers.

“Actually, they like to be recognized like the allies, the troops that have helped the United States,” Vang said.

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Critical help during a secret war that nobody recognized – but one that all Americans will now never forget.