WASHINGTON — The late Hmong military leader Vang Pao could be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but only if Obama administration officials waive the rules.
Though he commanded men in the field and worked closely with U.S. Special Forces and Central Intelligence Agency officers during the Vietnam War, Vang Pao lacked the direct U.S. military service typically required for ground burial at Arlington.
Exemptions may be granted by either the secretary of defense or the secretary of veterans affairs. Recently, for instance, the Obama administration authorized the ground burial at Arlington of Martin Ginsburg, a former Georgetown University tax law professor and the husband of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"It's not often, but it does happen," Army spokesman David Foster said Friday of the waivers.
Already, Vang Pao's allies have urged lawmakers to request a similar exemption.
"We understand the veterans' community is interested," Will Crain, spokesman for Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Friday, "but we are waiting to hear from the family before we reach out."
But even a congressional request is no guarantee of success, as Arlington burial waivers have at times incited controversy. Only 196 Arlington burial waivers were granted between 1967 and 1997, a Government Accountability Office study found. During the same period, at least 144 burial waiver requests were denied.
The 1998 study by the GAO, then called the Government Accounting Office, is the most recent of its kind and was conducted following controversy over an Arlington burial granted to a prominent Clinton administration campaign contributor who turned out to have lied about World War II Merchant Marine service.
By contrast, no one denies Vang Pao's martial virtues.
The former Laotian army general died Thursday in Clovis, Calif., at age 81. Starting in 1961, he led Hmong forces in covert alliance with the U.S. Thousands died; thousands more fled to the U.S. following the 1975 communist victory in Laos.
Last Congress, Costa authored a bill along with 22 House co-sponsors that would authorize the burial of Hmong veterans in U.S. national cemeteries. At the time, he estimated that as many as 6,900 of the foreign-born veterans might be eligible.
Costa's bill didn't advance very far, and though he's likely to reintroduce it this Congress, it won't come in time to assist Vang Pao's family. For him, an individual waiver is still needed.
"This guy saved the lives of thousands of Americans in the Vietnam War," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., in an interview Friday. "He deserves to be buried in Arlington."
Arlington already contains at least one reminder of Hmong service, a modest plaque set on a piece of granite and identified as the Lao Veterans Memorial Monument. On occasion, surviving Hmong veterans and their family members have gathered for wreath-laying ceremonies at the unobtrusive monument.
Ground burial, also called interment, is generally considered the most popular option at Arlington. Slightly looser rules govern inurnment in Arlington's above-ground Columbarium. Inurnment, for instance, is available for those who served in the U.S. Public Health Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or for U.S. citizens who served in foreign militaries allied with the U.S.
Decisions on waiving burial eligibility requirements often are made within 48 hours of the request, according to the GAO. The possibility of political influence exists, investigators suggest.
"Despite the (cemetery) superintendent's recommendation to deny, Army officials recommended that the waiver request be approved because of congressional interest and to avoid possible White House action," the GAO noted in one example.
More than 300,000 people are currently interred or inurned at Arlington. The cemetery is expected to reach its capacity in 2060, if the current rate of 28 burials a day is maintained.
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