WASHINGTON—Nearly four decades after the Vietnam War ended, an effort is underway in Congress to open up national cemeteries to Hmong soldiers who fought in the CIA-backed secret war in Laos.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has introduced legislation to give 6,900 former Hmong fighters living in the United States the right to be buried in national cemeteries.
The effort comes after the military denied permission for Gen. Vang Pao, a Hmong leader who died in California in 2011, to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery because he and the soldiers who fought under him and helped the U.S. did not directly serve in the American military. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.
“When our pilots were downed by antiaircraft fire behind enemy lines in the Vietnam War, the CIA asked our Hmong allies to risk their lives to advance our cause,” said Murkowski. “Americans who served and fought and put their lives on the line receive a resting place in our national cemeteries; the men who saved American lives deserve the same honor. Not all American war heroes were Americans.’’
Murkowski took up the issue because about 5,000 Hmong live in the Anchorage area. Large numbers of Hmong also reside in California's Central Valley, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Last year, Murkowski unsuccessfully attempted to amend a defense bill to authorize the burial in VA cemeteries of any U.S. citizen or legal resident who served in support of U.S. forces, including any covert action, in Laos between Feb. 28, 1961, and May 15, 1975.
Similar legislation was introduced by Rep. Jim Costa (D-Fresno) in the House in 2011 but never made it to the floor. A spokeswoman for Costa said he planned to reintroduce his bill.
Philip Smith, Washington director of the Lao Veterans of America, welcomed the new legislation and said it had been gaining support, with backing from members of both parties, since it was first introduced in Congress in 2010.
"The Hmong veterans really deserve to be buried in U.S. veterans cemeteries because of their direct yet covert role in defending U.S. national security interests during the Vietnam War,’’ he said.
There was no immediate response to the proposal from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Murkowski pointed out that President Clinton in 2000 signed legislation making Philippine World War II veterans who fought under the U.S. flag eligible for burial in VA cemeteries.
Hmong rescued downed U.S. pilots and gathered intelligence in a covert operation in Laos directed by the CIA in the 1960s and '70s. But under a 1962 treaty, Laos also was off-limits to U.S. personnel.