Philip Smith: Vang Pao burial decision is a disgrace

  • Article by: PHILIP SMITH
  • Updated: March 7, 2011 - 7:33 PM

Lao Hmong veterans who fought in America's covert war should be fully honored.

Gen. Vang Pao

Gen. Vang Pao

Photo: Associated Press, (AP)

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The recent funeral and burial of Gen. Vang Pao in California symbolizes why Lao Hmong veterans who served alongside U.S. military and clandestine forces in the "U.S. Secret Army" should be more fully honored by the United States as national policy.

The time is long overdue for Washington to permit these veterans of America's covert war in Laos to be granted the honor of being buried in U.S. national veterans' and military cemeteries.

Vang Pao, who, perhaps, became a more complex and enigmatic figure in recent years, died in January in Clovis, Calif., at age 81.

During the Indochina conflict, he was the leader of Laotian and Hmong irregular forces, as well as main-force units, formed in cooperation with the U.S. military and clandestine services of the CIA.

With American support, he helped to lead the largest covert operation in U.S. military history before the war against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.

His Laotian and Hmong troops rescued American pilots and air crews shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War.

His Lao Hmong special forces also saved the lives of countless U.S. soldiers, in part because of their interdiction of enemy troop and supply convoys as well as by tying up key North Vietnamese divisions in combat in Laos.

Following his death, many appealed to official Washington, including the Pentagon and White House, for his burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Those making the requests included his family; his combat veterans, led by the Lao Veterans of America; members of Congress, Lao Hmong community leaders, and others.

The appeals were largely met with a mixture of insensitivity, hubris and indifference by those responsible for America's national security and veterans affairs issues.

In a terribly timed statement on Feb. 4, the opening day of a weeklong funeral and mourning period marked by tens of thousands of grieving Lao-Hmong Americans, U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh announced that burial of Vang Pao at Arlington would not be permitted.

The stench of betrayal from Washington is once again overwhelmingly apparent to Lao Hmong-Americans and the Vietnam veterans who served with them during the bloody war in Southeast Asia.

America has for too long abandoned the Lao Hmong veterans and their refugee families in their hour of greatest need, both in terms of their horrific plight in Southeast Asia following the war as well as their current status in the United States -- where they are still largely forgotten, misunderstood or worse.

In light of this, Congress and President Obama should immediately work to enact legislation to authorize the Pentagon and Secretary of Veterans Affairs to grant the approximately 10,000 surviving Lao Hmong combat veterans the final honor which Gen. Vang Pao was denied.

Such legislation was introduced last year but did not reach a vote. Its reintroduction and passage would send an important message of gratitude and respect to Lao Hmong-American veterans and their families.

Lao Hmong veterans, including Vang Pao, should rest with honor at America's national cemeteries.

Philip Smith is the executive director for the Center for Public Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C. He has worked with the Lao and Hmong community on refugee, human rights and veterans issues for more than 20 years.

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Gen. Vang Pao