In a small building on Arcade Street in St. Paul, about a dozen Hmong veterans of the Vietnam War -- all trained, paid and armed to fight for the United States by the Central Intelligence Agency -- gather regularly to discuss upcoming public service events or festivities where their honor guard might be needed. They dress in old military uniforms they have bought on their own and have decorated with patches of their own design.
The meetings now come with a renewed urgency.
When they die, these secret warriors of a secret American war want to buried in veterans cemeteries alongside their American comrades. But even though they now are commonly acknowledged as having fought for the United States in northern Laos, they are prohibited by law from being buried in national or state veterans cemeteries, which are reserved for American service members and honorably discharged U.S. military veterans and their families.
A bill in the Minnesota House asks Congress and the president to change the prohibition. But the state Department of Veterans Affairs warns that doing so could open the door for others who have helped Americans in their conflicts overseas, escalating costs and crowding the cemeteries.
Earlier this week, the veterans made their plea at a hearing of the House Veterans Services Division.
"We were American soldiers fighting alongside American soldiers," testified Chue Chou Tchang, the national chairman of the Special Guerrilla Unit, an association of Hmong fighters in the United States, speaking through an interpreter. "We fought like brothers. We died together. Coming to this country, we'd like to rest with the American soldiers that fought with us."
Forbidden by a United Nations agreement from committing American troops in Laos in the early 1960s, the CIA launched a covert operation of training and funding Hmong soldiers, first to retrieve the bodies of pilots whose planes had crashed and then to block supplies and attack North Vietnamese and communist troops. An estimated 30,000 people, more than 10 percent of the Hmong population in Laos, were killed in the war and about 100,000 Hmong became refugees inside Laos, settling into already-existing towns or in resettlement centers. Beginning in the late 1970s, the United States and other nations began resettling Hmong; more than 60,000 Hmong live in Minnesota.
Now in their 60s and many in failing health, about 3,500 Hmong veterans are believed to remain in the United States, with about 400 in Minnesota, believed to be the largest contingent in any state.
A father's dying wish
Inside the little storefront on Arcade Street, pictures line the walls, and include aging photos of U.S. officers shaking hands with their Hmong counterparts and row after row of Hmong military leaders wearing U.S. military uniforms. Little U.S. flags are everywhere.
A panoramic picture of Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand 1970-1992 and a chalk board that hangs below it that lists upcoming funerals for three of the group's members underscore the group's tortuous past and its uncertain future.
Hmong Vietnam veterans receive no veterans benefits, such as medical care or pensions. Tchang, who still commands the respect of his dwindling troops, works full time trying to gain legitimacy for the soldiers who survive, pushing for them to get the paperwork necessary to secure the rights to the final resting place of their choice. There are 35 similar chapters in 35 different states.
At the hearing this week, Michael Yang testified that his father's dying wish was to be buried in a veterans cemetery. John Yang changed his name so that he could return to Laos without facing detention and become a naturalized American citizen. He had almost lost his left arm fighting against the North Vietnamese and communists. When he died in 2005, the family received a flag from U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum's office, but they couldn't get a military color guard to come to the cemetery. They had to get the Reserve Officers Training Corps from a nephew's school to do the presentation. He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, but not by choice
"He wanted to be buried in a national cemetery so bad," Michael Yang said. "That was the last honor he could have."
A nephew is now deployed to Afghanistan with the Minnesota National Guard and another soon will be joining the Navy. "That's the spirit my father had," he said. "We have to be protective of this country."
Change would set precedent
In a letter made available to committee members, Minnesota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito, himself a Vietnam veteran, acknowledged the role Hmong fighters had in the secret war in Laos, and pointed out that the state has proclaimed a special Royal Lao Armed Forces Day each year. But, Shellito said, granting special rights for Hmong fighters would represent a precedent, and any honor bestowed on Hmong veterans would have to be provided equally to others, such as Vietnamese, Iragis, Afghans, and Somalis.
"As you know, the Laotians are not unique in having served alongside U.S. Forces in the past," he wrote.
Although the CIA kept records of who it worked with, it could prove difficult to validate a Hmong veteran's claims of service, given the covert nature of the service, said Mike McElhiney, legislative director of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.
The federal restrictions apply to state veterans cemeteries as well. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, is a resolution asking Congress and the President to expand the eligibility.
U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-California, has twice introduced legislation to change the burial eligibility to include Hmong veterans. The bi-partisan legislation has collected 14 co-sponsors since it was re-introduced in October, but there are no hearings scheduled for the bill. No members of the Minnesota congressional delegation have signed on.
The effort has the support of many Americans who fought beside the Hmong soldiers.
"We abandoned them in 1975," said Jerry Kyser, a leader among Minnesota veterans groups and a Vietnam veteran who supports expanding the eligibility. "We owe it to them. They earned it."
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434