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Hmong veterans want U.S. military funeral honors

By ROBERT IMRIE, Associated Press Writer (WAUSAU, Wis.), May 5, 2002

Pang Blia Vang helped the CIA during the Vietnam War in Laos in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Now he wants something from the U.S. government - a military honor guard and flag-draped coffin at his funeral.

"It is important to us because my fellow veterans, we helped the CIA. We need the government to honor us," said the 52-year-old, one-time Laotian refugee who now lives in Menomonie. The Hmong, a hill tribe in Laos, received refugee status after U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam and it fell to communism in 1975.

Hmong soldiers helped U.S. pilots shot down over Laos during the war, served as spies and tried to disrupt supplies the communists shipped through Laos that were destined for North Vietnamese troops in Vietnam.

California has the largest population of Laotians and Hmong. About 45 percent of the country's Hmong population lives in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Lao Veterans of America want federal law changed to define some 45,000 Hmong veterans, including 2,000 in Wisconsin, as U.S. veterans so they could receive U.S. military funeral honors, said Wangyee Vang, national director for the group headquartered in Fresno, Calif.

"We are working with the congressional people to educate them," he said. "We have served under that flag so when we die we would like to have this honor."

U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett, D-Wis., is researching possible legislation for the federal government to provide a U.S. flag and play taps at the funerals of Hmong veterans, spokesman Phillip Walzak said.

Cha Vang of St. Paul, Minn., son of Gen. Vang Pao, who led the secret military in northern Laos during the war, said his father supports U.S. military funeral benefits for Hmong veterans as a way to honor their sacrifices.

"Everybody morally supports it, but we also know there are some regulatory and legal issues with it," Cha Vang said.

Joe Sternburg, chief financial officer for Vietnam Veterans of America in Silver Spring, Md., said he was unaware of any push to get U.S. military funeral benefits for Hmong veterans.

"We are having enough problems right now in getting military honor guard representation at regular funerals," he said. "You would be asking an overloaded system to do more work."

Marv Freedman, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, said what Hmong veterans want makes sense, given their commitment to U.S. troops.

"But trying to change the federal law on this is not realistic. I don't think it can be done," he said.

His group offered to train Hmong veterans in Wisconsin to provide their own military honors program at funerals for their colleagues, Freedman said.

Bill Kloster, executive assistant for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, said the Hmong fighters are ineligible for military funeral benefits because they are not U.S. veterans.

"I looked at what we could do to help them. The law was very clear," he said.

Xailee Lor, 53, of Oshkosh, was denied official military rites at his funeral because he did not fit the definition of a U.S. veteran, despite his CIA training and U.S. allegiances in Vietnam.

The family's request was granted in an unofficial way: A National Guard unit in training provided a 21-gun salute, presented a burial flag and played taps at his Jan. 14 burial in Oshkosh.

Lor's son, Lang Lor, 27, said his father was proud to fight with U.S. soldiers in Southeast Asia and he thought he deserved to be honored by the U.S. military when he died.

"It was pretty impressive. My dad got what he wanted," Lor said.

His mother kept the U.S. flag that draped her husband's casket and placed it in a suitcase, the son said.

Kloster said U.S. veterans are entitled to a U.S. flag and a minimum of two uniformed service members at their funerals if they desire, paid for by the government.

Each year, about 11,000 military veterans die in Wisconsin, and 4,000 to 5,000 request funerals with military honors, Kloster said.

Mike Furgal, adjutant quartermaster for the Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the state could finance a military honor guard for Hmong veterans.

State Rep. Terry Musser, R-Black River Falls, is exploring what the state can do to provide military funeral benefits for Hmong veterans.

"I think we owe it to them," said Musser, a Vietnam veteran and chairman of the Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee. "It is just a small way to acknowledge their service to our country, a final thank you for helping us in a time of need."



On the Net:

Wisconsin Department of Veteran Affairs: http://www.dva.state.wi.us

Lao Veterans of America: http://www.laoveterans.com

GRAPHIC: AP Photo WIOSH101