Veterans of Vietnam, Hmong continue to push for burial rights

The Hmong war veterans marching on congressional offices Wednesday know better than most about how legislation gets made. Or, more often, gets lost.

Gathered from Alaska and California’s San Joaquin Valley, the veterans who once fought alongside U.S. spies and soldiers in their native Laos again seek legislation allowing burial in U.S. national cemeteries.

They’ve been trying on Capitol Hill since 2009, when Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., and his San Joaquin Valley colleagues introduced the first House bill of its kind. This week, they made some tangible progress.

Following a Wednesday morning meeting between congressional aides and grassroots lobbyists like Fresno, Calif., residents Richard and Erik Xiong, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., declared she would sign on as a co-sponsor of the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act.

“I am proud to support this bipartisan bill, which would honor the service and sacrifice of Hmong veterans who bravely risked their lives fighting alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam War,” Boxer said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

She is joining her Democratic colleague from the state, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, as a supporter of the bill, that’s matched by a measure re-introduced in the House last year by Costa. In another modest sign of momentum, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., became the 41st co-sponsor of the House bill last month.

The bills authorize the burial in national cemeteries of Hmong veterans who served in a “special guerrilla unit or irregular forces operating from a base in Laos in support of the U.S. Armed Forces between February 28, 1961, and May 7, 1975.”

To be eligible, the Hmong veterans also must be naturalized U.S. citizens or legal U.S. residents.

Richard and Erik Xiong are both officers in the Lao Veterans of America Institute, which under various names has long lobbied for the Hmong benefits.

“We learned good news,” Erik Xiong said Wednesday. “I hope we will be successful after the election.”

Traditionally, the Hmong have resided in the mountains of Laos. Beginning in the early 1960s, they were recruited by U.S. personnel to assist in a largely covert theater of the broader war in Southeast Asia. Tens of thousands of Hmong and Lao are estimated to have died.

After the war, with Laos fallen into communist hands, many emigrated to this country. Currently an estimated 130,000 Hmong and Lao live in California, with many in the San Joaquin Valley. They have periodically been recognized by Congress; most recently in July, when the Senate passed a resolution authored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida honoring the “ Lao/Hmong Freedom Fighters” for their work.

More substantively, the Hmong and their congressional allies have previously secured certain immigration and other benefits.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs manages some 130 national cemeteries across the country, including the 322-acre San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella. The famed Arlington National Cemetery is separate, and is managed by the Army.

In what could prove a key development, the politically potent American Legion adopted a resolution at its annual convention last month urging Congress to “investigate, evaluate and prescribe” legislation that would permit national cemetery burial rights for certain “special groups” including the Hmong.

“These surrogate soldiers,” the American Legion resolution stated, “gave of themselves the utmost sacrifice of life in support of the U.S. operations.”

Separately, Costa announced Wednesday a $50,938 grant for the California National Hmong American Farmers, Inc. The Agriculture Department grant will help provide interpretative services to Southeast Asian farmers throughout the Valley.