Hmong, Lao veterans seek burials in national cemeteries

WASHINGTON -- Hmong and Laotian war veterans could secure treasured burial spots in U.S. national cemeteries under legislation now being drafted by San Joaquin Valley lawmakers.

Prompted by the natives of Laos who fought side by side with U.S. Special Forces and CIA officers during the Vietnam War, the region's House members are seeking support for the burial benefit. Supporters call this fair compensation for those who sacrificed much.

"We helped the United States fight that war," said Wangyee Vang, president of the Fresno-based Lao Veterans of America. "We deserve to have this."

In a letter circulating among congressional colleagues, Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, are rallying additional support for the Hmong burial bill. The bill will be introduced once more co-sponsors are gathered.

"This bill is written narrowly enough so as not to grant these individuals full veterans status, just internment benefits in national cemeteries, which they so richly deserve," states the letter, initiated by Costa's office.

Traditionally, the Hmong have resided in the mountains of Laos. Beginning in the early 1960s, Vang and others were recruited by U.S. personnel to assist in a largely covert theater of the broader war in Southeast Asia. Tens of thousands of Hmong and Lao are estimated to have died.

After the war, with Laos fallen into communist hands, many emigrated to this country. Presently, an estimated 130,000 Hmong and Lao live in California, with many in the San Joaquin Valley.

Along with the lowland Lao, the Hmong have lobbied in recent years for various immigration and other benefits. Until now, though, they have not explicitly sought burial rights in U.S. national cemeteries. Politically, it is easier to ask for one benefit at a time rather than an outright declaration of veteran status.

Steve Robertson, legislative affairs director for the American Legion, said Wednesday that extending the burial benefits to Hmong and Lao veterans is "in the realm of possibility," though the veterans advocacy organization has not taken a formal position.

"In general, we've been very, very supportive of assisting that group of veterans," Robertson said.

Still, it's rare for anyone other than U.S. military veterans and their immediate family members to win burial rights in one of the 130 Veterans Administration national cemeteries. The closest parallel to the Hmong's request came several years ago when Congress extended the cemetery benefits to Filipino soldiers and guerrilla fighters from World War II.

A few other groups have likewise won national cemetery burial rights, including World War II merchant mariners and officers with the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The available burial areas overseen by the VA's National Cemetery Administration range from the 322-acre San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella to the four-acre Sitka National Cemetery in Alaska.

Separately, the Department of the Army oversees the world famous Arlington National Cemetery. Many facilities have been swamped with demand, particularly as veterans from the World War II and Korean War generation age.

"We've got a lot of cemeteries that are already maxed out," Robertson noted.

Verification of service is one potential hurdle, accentuated because of the covert nature of the war in Laos. Unlike U.S. military veterans, the Hmong were not provided a DD-214 form that attests to their service. Previous bills aiding the Hmong typically required proof such as affidavits signed by superior officers.

The Hmong burial benefits bill will leave verification standards up to the Department of Veterans Affairs.