WASHINGTON — Several California lawmakers on Tuesday formally requested that the late Hmong leader Vang Pao be granted a treasured burial spot at Arlington National Cemetery.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., cited the former Laotian army general's martial assistance to the U.S. during the Vietnam War in asking for the Arlington burial waiver. Vang Pao requires a waiver because he didn't directly serve in the U.S. military.
"Major General Vang Pao and the Royal Lao Army served in support of the United States with passion, dedication, and honor," Costa stated in identical letters to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Several other House members joined Costa in the letter.
Vang Pao died Thursday in Clovis, Calif., at age 81.
Costa initiated the Arlington burial waiver request after meeting in Fresno, Calif., on Monday with Charlie Waters, a Korean War veteran who has been working closely with Vang Pao's family.
Waters said he conveyed to Costa the family's wishes that Vang Pao receive burial at Arlington. Costa agreed to ask, and he indicated as well the likelihood that further honors will be paid on the House floor or through the Congressional Record.
"Not only has this decorated hero been a respected leader in the Hmong community, he's been an advocate for human rights and U.S.-Lao relations during his time in the United States," the congressional letter states.
CIA officers recruited Vang Pao in late 1960 or 1961 to assist in the fight against North Vietnam. He fought the often-covert war until the communists took over Laos in 1975.
"We were all really impressed with (Vang Pao)," former CIA officer Bill Lair said in an oral history taken by Texas Tech University. "He was actually a field commander. He was really good at it, at controlling his people and getting the most out of them, planning, (and) giving his own method of operating . . . he did very well."
Any burial could be weeks away and will take place following a nationwide tour that's now in the planning stages. Waters said Vang Pao's body would first be taken to Wisconsin for five days, for a viewing by that state's large Hmong population.
Then, the family plans a multi-day funeral service at the Fresno Convention Center, reportedly culminating on Feb. 9. Waters said he still needs to find answers for certain logistical questions, including how to cope with possible deterioration of the general's body.
"I'll have to be talking to the funeral home about that," Waters said.
From 1967 to 1997, 196 Arlington burial waivers were granted, according to the most recent Government Accountability Office audit of the subject. During that period, at least 144 burial waiver requests were rejected.
Sixty-three percent of the Arlington waivers involved the burial of individuals in the same gravesite as someone else. Recent presidential administrations have become more lenient in granting waivers, records show, though occasional political controversies have arisen.
"No written criteria exist for determining when a waiver should be granted or denied," the GAO noted.
The burial waiver decision appears to be entirely up to the Pentagon.
Veterans Affairs Department spokeswoman Jo Schudo said Tuesday that the agency "has no authority" to grant waivers for Arlington, although it does for the VA's national cemeteries. Costa's spokesman, Will Crain, said a copy of the waiver request was sent to the VA because the agency oversees the National Cemetery Administration, which he said might add a voice to the Arlington waiver request.
Theoretically, even if the Arlington waiver request is denied, the VA could grant Vang Pao a burial waiver for one of the 131 national cemeteries it administers throughout the U.S.
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