Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Let Hmong veterans be laid to rest in national cemeteries

It is yet another piece of unfinished business for this do-nothing Congress. Even worse in this case, time is literally running out for an estimated 6,000 Hmong veterans who want nothing more than to be buried in a national cemetery.

That will take an act of Congress, because they didn’t serve directly in the U.S. military. While this issue may not have as much sweep as a farm bill or immigration reform, it matters a great deal to individuals affected, in places like the Central Valley.

It is a matter of honor that all Americans should care about.

As Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat, states it: “Serving side-by-side with U.S. troops during Vietnam, Hmong veterans have earned the right to rest in peace beside their brothers in arms. ... Granting them burial benefits recognizes their patriotic service and demonstrates our nation’s deep gratitude for their heroic actions.”

He was joined by Rep. Paul Cook, a Republican from Yucca Valley who is a Vietnam vet, in reintroducing H.R. 3369, the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act, in late October. The legislation has gained some support since it was first introduced in 2010. As of last week, it had 33 co-sponsors – 25 Democrats, 8 Republicans. Ten California representatives are among them.

Unfortunately, the bill is nowhere to be found on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs calendar before the House goes home for the year on Friday. Costa plans to resume his crusade in January, and there is some cause for optimism. Cook is on the subcommittee assigned the measure; five of the other eight members are co-sponsors, including Reps. Gloria Negrete-McLeod and Raul Ruiz of California.

Members of Congress representing California should have particular sympathy for this measure, given that there about 1,200 Hmong veterans still living in the state. There are nine national cemeteries in the state, including Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon and San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella.

Now, the only foreign soldiers allowed in national cemeteries are Filipino veterans who fought under the U.S. flag during World War II, when the Philippines was a U.S. commonwealth.

Under H.R. 3369, eligibility would be expanded to Hmong veterans – if they were legal U.S. residents at the time of death and if they were granted U.S. citizenship by a 2000 law, or served with guerrilla forces based in Laos in support of U.S. forces between Feb. 28, 1961 and May 7, 1975.

Just before Veterans Day last month, The Sacramento Bee’s Stephen Magagnini told some of their stories. Charlie Moua, 65, a local leader of Hmong veterans, said he was only 11½ when he was trained to fire a rifle. Khoua Xiong, 80, of Sacramento, said he lost two-thirds of the battalion he commanded. His cousin, Katoua Xiong, 74, said half his company of 100 soldiers was killed.

They were among thousands of Hmong guerillas who fought in the CIA’s secret campaign against North Vietnamese and communist forces in Laos. They saved lives of American soldiers, rescued U.S. pilots who were shot down and gathered vital intelligence. Four decades later, Hmong veterans are aging and dying by the day.

It’s already too late for their leader, Gen. Vang Pao, who died nearly three years ago at a Clovis hospital at age 81. He led thousands of Hmong in Laos; after the communist takeover in 1975, he helped refugees and those who resettled here. The military, however, refused to make an exception and would not let him be interred at Arlington National Cemetery, the most hallowed ground for our military. Instead, he is buried at a memorial park in Glendale.

Congress still has a chance to grant Pao’s men their dying wish. It is a well-deserved and long-overdue honor.