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The Death of a Quiet Fighting Man : Shooting: A young Hmong Marine escaped persecution in Asia and survived fighting in Kuwait only to die in street violence in his adopted hometown.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Va Lee was a Hmong born in a Southeast Asian village. He came to the United States as a child, arriving with his family, whose men had been fierce warriors in their native Laos, fighting as the CIA’s secret army against communist forces.

Lee also was a fighting man. A Marine, he survived unscathed the battle for Kuwait International Airport during the Persian Gulf War.

After his return, Lee, 22, was looking forward to the end of his four-year enlistment this Friday.

Instead, Lee was buried Monday under gray, overcast skies, four days after he was gunned down in East San Diego, yet another victim of street violence.

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Police investigators said six unidentified people, possibly gang members, calmly stood across the street and fired more than 30 shots at Lee and other young people attending a birthday party.

Lee, who was at the party with several of his brothers and friends, was shot once in the back. The bullet punctured his heart, and he died about 30 minutes later at Mercy Hospital. Koua Moua, 16, was wounded in the back and neck and is in serious condition at the same hospital.

Lee’s violent death is not unique among returning Operation Desert Storm veterans. He was one of at least four servicemen who survived the Persian Gulf War only to be gunned down on the streets upon their return home.

Although Lee’s killers are believed to be gang members, homicide Lt. Paul Ybarrando said Lee was not. Police believe the shooting was prompted by a territorial dispute--many of the party-goers were from the Linda Vista area of San Diego and the assailants were believed to be from East San Diego, where the party was held.

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The gunmen are still at large, and investigators have no suspects, Ybarrando said.

About 300 members of San Diego’s close-knit Hmong community gathered at Lee’s funeral at Greenwood Memorial Park to console his grieving parents and 11 surviving brothers and sisters.

Va’s older brother, Xue, remembered Va as a “very quiet kid” and a caring person.

“He hardly talked,” Xue said. “That’s why he didn’t have a girlfriend.”

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The family is still in shock over Va’s death, Xue added.

“He was very humble and never had any enemies or arguments with anybody,” Xue said.

Lor Lee, 47, and his wife, Shing, 37, tried to hold back their tears, as they clutched a picture of their dead son in his Marine uniform while sitting next to his grave. The couple broke down when Marine Lt. Phil Simmons presented them with the U.S. flag that covered their son’s oak casket.

“Corporal Lee was a fine Marine. He served his nation in time of peace and in time of war. He served courageously under fire. . . . It was a tragedy that he was gunned down the way he was,” Simmons told the mourners.

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Va Lee earned a combat action ribbon while serving as a member of the weapons platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Lee and the other members of his regiment, an element of the 1st Marine Division, returned to Camp Pendleton from the Persian Gulf on April 8.

Like his son, Lor Lee knows the horror of war. Before immigrating to the United States with other persecuted Hmongs, he served as a lieutenant in the CIA’s secret army in Laos. He was wounded in action. The Hmongs’ loyalty to their U.S. military advisers was legendary. Experts estimate that 30,000 Hmong out of a population of about 300,000 died while the United States was involved in the Vietnam War.

After the funeral, the family opened Va Lee’s casket as dozens of mourners filed by and viewed his body for the last time. Then, in the Hmong tradition, family members began cutting the brass buttons from his dress uniform.

Lor and Shing Lee stood next to their son’s casket, surrounded by friends and relatives.

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“Even with all these people around him,” a mourner said, “Lor Lee is right now a very lonely man.”


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