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Congress passes law allowing national cemetery burials for 'secret war' veterans

The law allows some Hmong- and Laotian-American veterans to be buried in U.S. national cemeteries, excluding Arlington National Cemetery.

Hmong and Laotian veterans who fought alongside the United States during a “secret war” in Laos against North Vietnamese forces celebrated a legislative victory last month after the passage of a bill that allows them to be buried in national cemeteries.

On March 23, the Hmong Veterans' Service Recognition Act was enacted as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018.

Image: Jim Costa
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., stands with Special Guerrilla Unit veterans and veterans organization leaders on March 29 to celebrate the enactment of the Hmong Veterans Service Recognition Act as incorporated into the appropriations omnibus for the 2018 fiscal year.Courtesy of the office of Rep. Jim Costa

The legislation, introduced in Congress by Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., in December 2017, takes effect more than 40 years after the end of the secret war. It allows some Hmong- and Laotian-American veterans to be buried in U.S. national cemeteries, excluding Arlington National Cemetery, and applies to only veterans who pass away on or after the bill's enactment.

Costa, whose district includes Fresno, California, which is home to more than 20,000 people of Hmong descent, according to the 2010 Census, previously sponsored four similar measures to extend burial benefits to Hmong and Laotian veterans.

During the Laotian Civil War, the CIA recruited Hmong and Lao soldiers to fight against communist forces. At the end of the war, those who came to the U.S. as refugees were provided an expedited pathway to citizenship through naturalization.

“These brave men and women fought shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam War, and they have earned this honor and recognition,” Costa said. “I have been working closely with our local veterans leaders and my House and Senate colleagues on a bipartisan basis to secure these benefits for our SGU veterans for nearly 10 years, and seeing our nation finally extend these benefits is a huge victory for our veterans and their families.”

Between 6,900 and 9,700 veterans would qualify for the burial benefit, according to a 2015 estimate from a veterans group.

Costa hosted a press conference on Thursday at the Lao Hmong American War Memorial in Fresno County Courthouse Park to announce and celebrate the legislation. Between 40 and 50 people attended the event on Thursday, according to Claudia Larson, Costa's spokesperson.

Among those in attendance was Peter Vang, the son of a veteran and executive director of Lao Veterans of America — a Laotian- and Hmong-American nonprofit veterans organization.

In an email, Vang said he is extremely happy about the bill's passage.

“Lao Veterans of America has been working very hard for many years on this bill,” he said. “I am now can tell my father and many thousand Hmong Veterans who fought with the US. Government (CIA) during the secret war in Laos from 1961-1975 that now they can chose to be burial at the Veterans National Cemetery. Their children will be very proud … This is making history for us.”

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