Burial for Hmong, Lao veterans sought

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About 400 allied veterans from the “American Secret War” in Laos during the 1950s, who currently live in Minnesota, would be eligible for burial in the Minnesota Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, under a bill approved by a House division.

HF2261 would expand burial rights to include deceased Hmong-Americans and Lao-American veterans, many of whom were recruited in their homeland and trained by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War. After the war, many of the soldiers were relocated to the United States.

However, federal law does not currently grant former Hmong and Lao CIA operatives’ burial rights in state and national cemeteries, so the bill is contingent upon HF2260, a state resolution requesting that federal laws be changed.

The House Veterans Services Division approved both bills, sponsored by Rep. Bob Dettmer (R-Forest Lake). The division referred the resolution to the House floor and referred HF2261 to the House State Government Finance Committee. Neither bill has a Senate companion.

Speaking through an interpreter, retired Col. Chuechou Tchang said they were trained to fight alongside American soldiers and were told to retrieve U.S. casualties at all costs. “We paid the price to be here. Allow us to rest in honor with our deceased brothers.”

Between 1975 and 1982, more than 53,000 Hmong and Laotian refugees resettled in the United States and many gained U.S. Citizenship. An estimated 8,000 veterans remain in the U.S. and are now between 70 and 85 years of age.

Mike McElhiney, legislative director for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, said that while the department appreciates the sacrifices made by the American-Hmong and American-Lao veterans, the proposed legislation may open the door to other groups from subsequent wars and conflicts to receive similar state and federal benefits.

“We don’t want to set a precedent where we single out just one population,” McElhiney said. The department remains neutral on the issue, he added.

The bill would also permit burial in any future state veteran cemeteries, such as the one planned in Fillmore County.