Recruited from moutainous Nepal, Gurkha soldiers became legendary for their fighting prowess and fierce loyalty to the British Crown. America had its Gurkhas, too: the Montagnards of Vietnam's Central Highlands. But in the gallery of glory their canvas hangs tragedy-stained.

In the early 1960s, Green Berets and CIA agents working in South Vietnam enticed thousands of hill tribesmen, blood enemies of the lowland Vietnamese, to help U.S. forces kill Viet Cong.Trading their crossbows for automatic rifles, the Montagnards beat the VC at their own ambush game, fighting without quarter and winning the undying respect of the GIs whom they faithfully served.

For Americans, the Vietnam War ended in April 1975 with Saigon's fall. Not for the Montagnards. Hopeful that their U.S. allies would someday return, about 10,000 tribesmen continued to wage a guerrilla war against Vietnamese communism.

That war ended only last year, when the Montagnard remnants, operating out of Cambodia's tiger-infested jungles, surrended to the United Nations. Official inventory of surviving men and arms: 389 guerrillas, a few AK-47 assault rifles, four grenade launchers with one round apiece.

Having foiled the best efforts of man and nature to exterminate them, the survivors were not about to return to Vietnam and probable execution by a regime that hated them on ethnic and political grounds.

So they joined about 400 other Montagnards in America, where they have struggled to adapt to U.S. society.

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Many refugees pine for the faintly remembered life of longhouse and village. But no homecoming is likely while Hanoi persecutes the 500,000 or more Montagnards still in Vietnam.

The Hanoi government has engaged in breaking up villages, banning practice of the tribesmen's distinctive Christian/animist faith, and, for extra spite, denying most Montagnard children a higher education.

Until lately, America has been in no position to stick up for the faithful and loyal Montagnards.

But if Hanoi wants normalized relations with the United States, the price should include fair treatment of the mountain people who fought so nobly beside us and after us.

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