Hmong Veterans Ask for Burial Rights in US Veterans Cemeteries

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FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2005 file photo, a group of Lao and Hmong veteran soldiers who fought in Vietnam and Loas salute during a ceremony to dedicate a new Lao Hmong American War Memorial at Courthouse Park in downtown Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Craig Kohrluss)
FILE - In this Dec. 21, 2005 file photo, a group of Lao and Hmong veteran soldiers who fought in Vietnam and Loas salute during a ceremony to dedicate a new Lao Hmong American War Memorial at Courthouse Park in downtown Fresno, Calif. (AP Photo/The Fresno Bee, Craig Kohrluss)

The CIA's 40,000-member Long Tieng military base was the second most populous city in Laos, though it did not exist on any map of its era.

For officially, there was no war in Laos, at least not one that would draw in American forces already occupied in Vietnam. In reality, men like Pang Mang Thao spent much of the 1960s and '70s under the tutelage of the CIA, attempting to block the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply routes through Laos while preparing to defend the Laotian monarchy from Communist takeover.

And when U.S. pilots crashed into the Laotian jungles, it was men like Thao who came to rescue them.

"For one American life, we used 200 to 300 Hmong to go out into the jungle and find (him)," said Thao, president of the Minnesota Lao Veterans of America.

On Saturday, 44 years after the fall of Long Tieng, Lao-Hmong veterans from across the U.S. are expected to gather in St. Paul for the fourth annual Lao Hmong Veterans National Conference.

The day-long conference will be held at the offices of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, Inc., 320 University Ave. W. Policy discussions are scheduled in the morning, followed by an evening reception.

The gathering is expected to be more than simply nostalgic, ceremonial or symbolic. Almost since their arrival in the U.S. in the late 1970s, Hmong survivors of the CIA's failed "Secret War" in Laos have asked the U.S. government for military veterans benefits, with limited success.

In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the Hmong Veterans' Service Recognition Act, which allows Lao-Hmong veterans to be buried in U.S. national cemeteries. The law, however, only recognizes veterans who became naturalized U.S. citizens after the year 2000.

By some estimates, the Service Recognition Act leaves out half the Hmong veterans in America.

"It excludes about half the veterans because of a technical problem in the bill," said Philip Smith, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, one of the conference's co-sponsors. "We're looking for a technical correction."

Interpreter Pa Lee addressed a small crowd at the Lao Family offices on Friday while standing next to her father William Lee, who had worked for the CIA in Laos from 1960 to 1975. He became a U.S. citizen in 1990.

"My father would not be eligible," Pa Lee said.

William Lee, right, worked with CIA 1960 to 1975 to block Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos to North Vietnamese. When US pilots crashed in Laotian jungle, he +150 Hmong would go out to rescue pilot. He's not eligible for VA benefits or VA burial even under 2018 Service Recognition Act. pic.twitter.com/n33cXDWmdQ

"This is a big deal for all the Hmong veterans, because up until last year they got nothing," she added, calling upon political leaders to expand the Service Recognition Act before too many veterans pass away. "I believe that the Hmong community has enriched the melting pot in the Twin Cities."

The war against Communism in Laos ended badly, with thousands of Hmong executed, forced to flee across the Mekong River or sent to Communist re-education camps.

Many spent years in massive refugee camps in Thailand before being relocated to unfamiliar new lands like Minnesota.

In 1997, a "Laos and Hmong Memorial" etched in granite was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

In 2000, Hmong veterans became eligible for fast-tracked U.S. citizenship through the Hmong Veterans' Naturalization Act.

The Lao Hmong Veterans National Conference is co-sponsored by the Center for Public Policy Analysis in Arlington, Va., the Minnesota Lao Veterans of America, Inc., and the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, Inc. 

This article is written by Frederick Melo from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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