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'Secret war' veterans ask Congress for national cemetery burials

During the Laotian Civil War, the CIA recruited Hmong and Lao soldiers to fight against communist forces.

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'Secret war' veterans ask Congress for national cemetery burials

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Courtesy of the Lao Veterans of America
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More than 40 years after the end of the "secret war" in Laos against North Vietnamese forces, Hmong and Laotians who fought alongside the U.S. and their advocates are pushing for a bill that would allow the veterans to be buried in U.S. national cemeteries.

The Hmong Veterans' Service Recognition Act was introduced in Congress in December 2017 by Democrat Rep. Jim Costa, who has previously sponsored four similar measures. It would allow some Hmong- and Laotian-American veterans to be buried in U.S. national cemeteries, excluding Arlington National Cemetery. It is cosponsored by Democrat Rep. Raul Ruiz and Republican Reps. Don Young and Paul Cook.

Lao- and Hmong-American veterans at a January press conference with Rep. Jim Costa, center, in front of the Lao Hmong American War Memorial in Fresno County, California. Courtesy of the Lao Veterans of America

"The purpose of the legislation is to provide the appropriate honor to these aging veterans, these soldiers, who fought for their own independence and freedom and aligned themselves with the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s," said Costa, whose district includes Fresno, California, which is home to more than 20,000 people of Hmong descent, according to the 2010 Census.

During the Laotian Civil War, the CIA recruited Hmong and Lao soldiers to fight with against communist forces. At the end of the war, those who came to the U.S. as refugees were provided an expedited pathway to citizenship through naturalization.

Philip Smith — Washington, D.C., director and national liaison of Lao Veterans of America, a Laotian- and Hmong-American nonprofit veterans organization — called the bill a historic piece of legislation that would provide long overdue honor and recognition to Lao- and Hmong-American veterans who served during the Vietnam War.

Peter Vang, the executive director of Lao Veterans of America and the son of a veteran, said the bill would substantially help veterans' families, as many who live in the United States struggle financially.

Between 6,900 and 9,700 veterans would would qualify, according to a 2015 estimate, Smith said. The bill states that the benefit would only apply to veterans who pass away after its enactment.

"Sadly, the Laotian and Hmong veterans are increasingly growing older in the United States, and many are passing away in greater numbers each year that passes," Smith wrote in an email. "It would mean so very much to the Hmong and Lao veterans and their families, who came to the United States as political refugees after the Communist invasion of Laos, to be allowed to be officially buried or cremated and lay in honor alongside their fellow American soldiers, who they served with during the Vietnam War, in U.S. national veterans cemeteries."

Advocates of Hmong- and Laotian-American veterans, including veterans themselves, have been fighting for decades for benefits and recognition.

Efforts have included the Lao Veterans of America monument, which was dedicated at Arlington in 1997, and the Hmong Veterans' Naturalization Act of 2000, which exempted the veterans from certain requirements in the naturalization process.

"Many people don't know about the Hmong veterans … and I think they deserve to have some recognition, and we urge Congress to support this bill," Vang said.

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