Decorated U.S. vet bitter over feds' Laotian coup charges

SACRAMENTO — Lt. Col. Harrison Jack won two Bronze Stars leading teams of U.S. Army Rangers into fierce combat in Vietnam. Last week he erupted in tears after surviving the toughest battle of his life.

The U.S. government, whose uniform Jack wore proudly for 30 years, had branded him a terrorist, charging him and 11 other defendants with plotting the violent overthrow of communist Laos. If convicted, the West Point graduate from Woodland would have spent the rest of his life in prison.

In an exclusive interview at the office of his lawyer, Federal Public Defender Dan Broderick, Jack, 64, explained how what began as an effort to liberate Hmong trapped in communist Laos became an international terrorism case.

The charges that had hung over Jack for 1,315 days were dropped against all defendants last week "in the interests of justice," said Benjamin Wagner, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California.

A dismissal order signed by U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. ended the investigation known as "Tarnished Eagle," an undercover operation led by Steve Decker, an ATF agent who told Jack and the other defendants that he was an arms merchant.

"I appreciate that the justice system did render justice," Jack said.

He and several Hmong immigrants living in California had been exploring ways to liberate about 5,000 Hmong hiding from communists in the Lao jungle – the remnants of the CIA-funded guerrilla army that battled the Lao and Vietnamese communists more than 35 years ago. Many had been led by the late Gen. Vang Pao, who was accused of being the leader of the Tarnished Eagle plot until charges were dropped against him in 2009.

Amnesty International has documented families in the jungle living off roots and bugs, without any schooling or medical care, and being shot at by the Laotian military.

Jack, who said that he "always championed the underdog," saw similarities between Hmong hill tribes and American Indians.

"My hero was Crazy Horse," he said. "His boys kicked Custer's butt. He always led his men into battle and had a reputation for being immune to bullets. Vang Pao reminded me of him."

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