By Steve Wideman • Post-Crescent staff writer • November 21, 2010
APPLETON — Hmong army Maj. Lo Lee’s instructions were crystal clear.
Fight the communist North Vietnamese army in Laos. Stop enemy soldiers and supplies from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail and, most urgently, rescue any U.S. pilot blown out of the sky over Laos.
“When an American pilot was shot down, our instructions were to get that pilot out no matter what the cost. Even if five or 10 Hmong soldiers died, we were never to give up,” said Lee, who four decades later is leader of the Hmong-American Partnership in Appleton.
Some 20,000 Hmong soldiers were killed during more than a decade of fighting as part of the war the U.S. secretly waged in their homeland of Laos during the Vietnam War era. After the war ended, thousands more Hmong were killed at the hands of the communist Laotian government. Still thousands more were forced to flee, never to return.
Even so many years later, their dedication is fueling a push in Congress to allow Hmong veterans to be buried in national cemeteries. Twenty-three representatives, including four from Wisconsin, are sponsoring a bill to extend the burial benefit now reserved mostly for U.S. military personnel.
The proposal, which awaited action in a subcommittee as federal lawmakers returned to work this past week, underscores the often forgotten sacrifice made by a far-away people who, through war, became inextricably linked to places like Appleton, Menasha and Neenah.
“Our Hmong veterans fought shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Our nation owes a debt of gratitude to these patriotic individuals, and their service should be honored with burial benefits in our national cemeteries,” U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., author of the bill, said in July when he introduced it.
Costa estimates that about 6,900 Hmong veterans would be eligible for the benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs would have to verify their service.
The federal government operates 131 national veterans cemeteries in 39 states, including one in Wisconsin. Also, state officials say the federal change automatically would open up Wisconsin’s three state veterans cemeteries to Hmong soldiers if they are state residents when they die.
That would suit Lee.
“It would be a matter of pride, privilege and honor for Hmong veterans to be buried alongside their colleague soldiers from the United States…,” he said.
State cemetery option
Wisconsin rules that block burial of Hmong veterans in state cemeteries automatically would change to match federal law if Congress approved the bill, said Mark Mathwig, director of the Bureau of Cemeteries for the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Everything that applies to national cemeteries applies to state veterans cemeteries,” Mathwig said, noting one additional state rule requires veterans seeking burial in state cemeteries to be Wisconsin residents when they die.
Wisconsin’s only national cemetery, the Wood National Cemetery, located on the grounds of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in the community of Wood near Milwaukee, has no room for new burials. But, all three state-run cemeteries have available space, Mathwig said.
Although it sounds simple enough, there could be a catch.
Because of the secret nature of the war in Laos, Hmong veterans were not provided the discharge papers given to U.S. military members when the war ended for them.
That paperwork traditionally is required as proof of military service when applying for veterans benefits, said Jon Li Donne, veterans service officer for Waupaca County.
“The question is, seeing (as) the Hmong weren’t American citizens when the CIA bought them, they may not be recognized as veterans because they (Congress) would have to give them full veterans benefits,” Meidam said.
But Costa’s bill narrowly defines its intent as interment in national cemeteries without any provisions for extending additional benefits.
A similar benefit was previously accorded to members of the Philippine military who aided the United States during World War II.
U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Appleton, said Hmong soldiers deserve the burial benefit and he hopes Congress acts soon on the bill.
“Our comrades in arms, the brave Hmong who fought with us in Vietnam, also deserve to be interred in our national cemeteries…,” Kagen said.
‘We relied on each other’
Lee’s role in the war primarily was to assess the needs of surviving relatives of the dead soldiers.
“I would travel from region to region to gather data. It was a very difficult thing,” Lee said. “There were so many families where the father was killed, leaving several children in the 6-to-7-year-old range and just the wife to take care of them.”
“Imagine what it must have been like to figure out how to feed all those children. It was terrible,” Lee said.
Sometimes an elderly Hmong couple would lose their only son to the war — a son who had taken care of them.
“That was a horrible memory for those older people. They would cry and cry. I saw many people in that situation,” Lee said.
Lee said it wasn’t a difficult decision for the Hmong to help the Americans.
“Our people had been living with communism and didn’t like the system. The Americans came, and America was a superpower that had a good chance to win the war.”
American veterans of the Vietnam War also want to see their Hmong comrades honored with the burial benefit.
“I don’t think most (Vietnam veterans) would have a problem with the Hmong being buried in national and state veterans cemeteries. They (Hmong) did a lot to help the U.S. out in the war,” said Leon Meidam, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 351 in the Fox Cities.
Meidam served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division in 1970 and 1971, first in a ground reconnaissance unit and then as a crew member flying small helicopters to either to fire directly on enemy soldiers or to search out targets for bombing missions by other pilots.
“The Hmong paid quite a price for helping the United States and got a lot of (downed American pilots) out of Laos,” Meidam said. “A lot of people don’t know what they did.”
Lee doesn’t know what made the relationship between the Hmong and Americans so strong.
“But you could see in the eyes and faces of the American soldiers that they trusted us and wanted to help us so much,” he said. “We relied on each other so much.”
Steve Wideman: 920-993-1000, ext. 302, or firstname.lastname@example.org