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Celebrating freedom at Camp Hale

September 14, 2010

With prayer flags flying, a Friday ceremony
honors Tibetan freedom fighters who trained at Camp Hale
Scott N. Miller
Vail Daily (Colorado, US)
September 10, 2010

PANDO, Colorado -- Prayers, speeches, flags and a
simple plaque have filled a hole in the history of Camp Hale.

The history of the 10th Mountain Division has
been told to seemingly the smallest detail. Other
military operations there have also been
documented. But between 1958 and 1964, the
official story was that the military was
conducting explosives and weapons tests at the high-elevation base.

Actually, the CIA was training Tibetan freedom
fighters at Camp Hale. Fewer than 300 men were
trained there. Some were parachuted into remote
areas of Tibet -- others slipped across the
borders. Their mission was to train insurgents to
conduct guerrilla operations against the Chinese,
who had invaded and occupied the country in the
late 1950s. They all wore poison capsules around
their necks. If they were captured, they knew what to do.

The men who came back and their descendants have
for years lobbied for a memorial at Camp Hale to
commemorate this little-known chapter in the history of the Cold War.

Sen. Mark Udall has ties to that part of Asia,
thanks in part to his own interest in climbing
and his mother's Peace Corps tour in Nepal. He
first proposed the memorial plaque when he was
representing Eagle County in Congress.

"It should have been a simple thing," he said Friday.

It wasn't.

Overdue recognition
Udall started work on the project again after
being sworn into the Senate in early 2009.
Friday, several dozen people came to see the
plaque unveiled, including former CIA trainers,
Tibetan freedom fighters and their families.

"This is so meaningful on all sorts of levels,"
said Carole McGranahan, a professor at the
University of Colorado at Boulder who has written
about the Chinese invasion and occupation of
Tibet. "It's the first acknowledgment of what happened here."

That recognition was important to the Tibetans
who came from all over this country to attend the ceremony.

"I'm happy," former freedom fighter Tashi Poljor
said. "This is like coming to my home."

"We trained many good fighters here," Poljor
added. "When someone left, we'd cry -- there's so
much connection between Americans and Tibetans."

Don Cesare, one of the CIA trainers, spent three
years training the freedom fighters, talked a
little about the bond between the Tibetans and their trainers.

"The Tibetans all chewed snuff, from the
English," Cesare said. "We chewed Copenhagen
(tobacco), and they came to really like it.

"We sent a team in once, and hadn't heard from
them for a long time, so we were worried. When
they surfaced, they didn't ask for bullets or
grenades -- they asked for a roll of Copenhagen."

High Country undercover
It's easy to forget today, but Camp Hale was
still a relatively remote mountain valley when
the Tibetans were training there. Still, it could
be hard to maintain the cover story.

Kevin McCarthy's father, Roger, ran the training
base. The elder McCarthy died in 2007, but his
son talked about the bonds between the men who
worked there. But he also told the story of a
homemade rocket that veered wildly off-course one night.

The men heard the explosion, then saw the lights
from the just-over-Chicago-Ridge Climax Mine go
dark. Repairing the damage cost $25,000, "But it
helped maintain the cover story they were doing
explosive development work," Kevin McCarthy said.

The Tibetans who trained at Camp Hale didn't talk
about their work, even to their own families.

"We always wondered why our father spoke English
with an American accent when we all spoke English
with an Indian accent," said Doma Norbu, the
daughter of one of the freedom fighters. "He
could look at a map when we were in a new city --
we always just thought he was a really good map reader."

The Tibetan freedom fighters were brave, tough,
and, ultimately, vastly outnumbered and outgunned
by the Chinese, who still control the mountainous
country. But hope lives on in the spirits of Tibetans in this country.

Many at the ceremony spoke about a willingness to
take on the Chinese again, with help from their
American friends. Others talked to Udall about
trying to obtain visas so roughly 5,000 Tibetan
refugees could leave Nepal and come to the United States.

"After 50 years, we're still fighting against the
Chinese," said Karma Namgyal, president of a
Tibetan group based in New York. "We're ever ready to make Tibet free."

Ken Knaus, one of the CIA trainers and leader of
the effort to commemorate the work at Camp Hale, agreed.

"This is not a funeral," Knaus told the crowd.
"This is the continuation of a fight that started 50 years ago."
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