Supporters start final push to get Vang Pao buried at Arlington

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 2, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Vang Pao's final battle is being fought over America's most hallowed ground, Arlington National Cemetery.

In a lobbying campaign with both overt and covert fronts, lawyers, lawmakers and former military officers are all pressing the Obama administration to grant the late Hmong general a burial at Arlington. Still, it looks like a tough call.

"We don't always get the results we want, but we'll take a two-by-four to as many people as we can," Scott Nishioki, chief of staff to Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Wednesday.

On Friday, mourners will begin a six-day funeral service at the Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center. The elaborate services are starting nearly a month after Vang died on Jan. 6, at age 81.

The lobbying for an Arlington burial spot began almost immediately. Some efforts have been public, as when Costa wrote the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs on Jan. 11 urging that Vang be given the waiver necessary for an Arlington burial.

Congressional staffers have been calling their contacts, e-mailing copies of articles and editorials. Veterans have been weighing in, reminding officials of Vang Pao's assistance to U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.

For 15 years, starting sometime around 1961, Vang Pao led Hmong troops alongside CIA officers and U.S. Special Forces. The Americans who served with him uniformly applauded his valor.

Even so, Vang Pao's final resting spot has yet to be determined.

"There is some controversy to this," Nishioki acknowledged.

As of Wednesday, neither the Defense Department nor the Department of Veterans Affairs had indicated when or how they might rule on the request for an Arlington burial waiver. At one point, Costa's office was advised that a burial waiver decision would be made by Jan. 25; that didn't happen.

The delay hints at the complications facing officials who must balance Vang Pao's service against some of his postwar problems, which included a criminal indictment that was eventually dropped. Officials face, as well, potential resistance from U.S. veterans who are protective of Arlington's reputation.

"I don't want it done at all," said Jack E. Steinke, a Fresno resident and 21-year veteran of the Navy. "He doesn't have any business being there."

A retired chief petty officer, now 87, Steinke noted that "we had lots of people who fought alongside us" in the nation's various wars. Unless they were directly members of the U.S. military, or met some other strict requirements, these allies were not eligible for an Arlington burial.

Arlington may grant burial waivers for those whose military service "directly and substantially benefited" the U.S. military, according to cemetery guidelines. Officials also take into account other factors, including what kind of precedent might be set.

Away from Capitol Hill, groups and individuals are weighing in.

Philip Smith, Washington liaison for the Fresno-based Lao Veterans of America, said Wednesday that he's written two letters to the new superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery on behalf of the burial waiver.

Jenkins Middleton, former vice president of the Export-Import Bank, said Wednesday that he has talked to a former secretary of the Army about the case. Author Jane Hamilton-Merritt, long associated with Hmong causes, has likewise been active, along with her well-connected husband, retired oil explorer Henry Merritt. Yet another ally has been attempting to enlist former CIA Director James Woolsey to the cause.

Potentially, the administration could deny Vang Pao a spot at Arlington but, through the Department of Veterans Affairs, grant a spot in another national cemetery. The secretary of veterans affairs is broadly permitted to authorize burials in these locations, such as the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella, Calif., for "such other persons" as deemed appropriate, according to regulations.

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