WASHINGTON — As the years went by and more Hmong war veterans passed with them, Charlie Waters attended funerals and read eulogies for the oft-forgotten allies in the U.S. war in Southeast Asia.
Now, after years of lobbying and with the help of California lawmakers who introduced a bill Tuesday to make some 6,900 Hmong veterans eligible for internment in U.S. national cemeteries, Waters may soon address the Hmong at their proper burial grounds.
"It's been a long time coming," said Waters, judge advocate for the American Legion in the Central Valley and legislative adviser for the Special Guerrilla Units veterans. Elated and emotionally stirred by the proposed bill, some Hmong "are hardly able to talk today," Waters said.
Hmong veterans, who fought alongside the CIA and U.S. Special Forces during the Vietnam War, have long sought to gain access to those hallowed grounds. Now, more than 30 years after participating in a covert operation in the mountains of Laos, the Hmong likely will be honored by Congress and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for their service.
"Our Hmong veterans fought shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers during the Vietnam War," said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, who introduced the bill. "Many paid the ultimate sacrifice, and I am proud that Hmong veterans now call places like our Valley home. Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to these patriotic individuals and their service should be honored with burial benefits in our national cemeteries."
Leaders of the Hmong community say that winning the burial rights demonstrates a U.S. commitment to give the estimated tens of thousands of Hmong and Lao who died in the war and the remaining veterans the recognition they deserve.
"If we're able to get something like that (proposed bill) in place, it means a great deal to the community," said Bao Vang, president and chief executive of the Hmong American Partnership, a Minnesota-based community development organization that is supporting the legislation. "Hmong lost many lives due to the war. There's not that many Hmong veterans remaining. ... This is definitely a step in the right direction."
According to the 2000 Census, more than 65,000 Hmong live in California, including some 48,000 in Fresno. Other large Hmong communities in the U.S. are in Minnesota, with 45,930, and Wisconsin, with 31,578.
"We just kind of abandoned those folks when we left Vietnam. They came here; they didn't ask for anything," Waters said.
With the help of 22 co-sponsors, Costa said he had garnered enough support in Congress to finally propose the legislation. Though he expects the bill to pass, Costa said he'll need to educate his fellow members of Congress about the story of the Hmong veterans.
Part of that lesson is to understand the monumental sacrifices Hmong veterans made to help the U.S. fight communist North Vietnam, Waters said.
"So many of the young congressmen don't understand ... so many of them are not Vietnam-era people," Waters said. "These people ... they gave up everything. The least we can do is honor them."