Fighters from secret Laos war earned right to military burials.
When American fighter jets fell to the earth in the Vietnam War, Hmong soldiers recruited by the CIA often risked their lives to rescue injured pilots or retrieve remains so that families back home could pay proper respects.
Decades later, these veterans of the United States' secret Laotian war are asking their new homeland to let their families pay last respects in a fitting place: a military cemetery. Congress needs to act swiftly on a bill that would allow Hmong veterans who are now American citizens to be buried alongside fellow warriors in places like Minnesota's Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
As one of the nation's epicenters of Hmong immigration, Minnesota should be at the forefront of ensuring that these veterans' final wishes are granted. While Minnesota veterans and lawmakers here have shown exemplary leadership on the issue, federal action is needed. Not a single member of Minnesota's U.S. House delegation has signed up to cosponsor a bill from Rep. Jim Costa of California.
Costa's bill would expand burial eligibility to include those who fought for the United States in Laos during the Vietnam War. Burial in state and national military cemeteries is generally limited to those currently serving, as well as honorably discharged veterans and family members, according to a Star Tribune story by Mark Brunswick.
Costa's bill has made little progress in Congress, and there is no companion bill in the U.S. Senate, though Minnesota Sen. Al Franken expressed interest in the issue last week. Fortunately, Minnesotans are working hard to spotlight the congressional legislation and the cause. State Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, a military veteran, is pushing legislation at the State Capitol calling for Congress to act. At a recent legislative hearing, Hmong veterans spoke of their simple desire to rest in a place of honor. They are not eligible for nor are they seeking other veterans' benefits, such as health care.
Minnesota veterans, who have long remembered the Hmong's reputation for bravery as they rescued pilots and attacked enemy troops, have also championed the cause. They "weren't fighting for their country. They were fighting for the United States,'' said Ralph Donais of Elk River, who served as a Marine in Vietnam. "To me, it's an issue of did you save American lives?"
It's shameful that this issue hasn't been resolved before now. While there's little objection publicly to changing the policy, some privately question whether there's space in military cemeteries and whether this would essentially allow anyone of any nationality who fought with U.S. troops to be buried in a military cemetery.
Costa's office estimates that up to 6,900 Hmong veterans would be eligible for military burial nationwide, and that fewer than 3,000 might actually request it. On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said that space is not a problem, as military cemeteries expand to accommodate new generations of veterans.
There's also a precedent for allowing burials for a similar group: Philippine veterans who served with American forces during the World War II era. Expanding burial eligibility should be done carefully on a case-by-case basis. But Hmong soldiers have earned this right. Their final resting place should honor their long-ago bravery and sacrifice.
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