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Forgotten widows of Vietnam fight last battle for US passports

BY: Stephen Collinson - WASHINGTON, Sept 30

Shou Vang's face creases in pain when she remembers her husband and three young sons who were slaughtered a generation ago in the jungles of Laos.

Dwarfed by the vast marble flanks of the US Capitol building adorned by a fluttering stars and stripes, she fights back tears just long enough to demand the US passport she believes is her right.

"My husband was killed in April, in 1974, then the Communists came to our village and killed my three sons," she sobs.

"There was only my baby and me left to escape to Thailand," said Shou, who was in Washington this week with 30 other Lao and Hmong widows to press Congress to grant them US citizenship.

Nearly three decades after losing husbands who fought in a fearless covert army allied with the United States in the Vietnam War, the widows believe they are on the verge of righting a grievous historical fault.

"We widows are entitled to citizenship because our husbands have sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam War," said Sia Vang who lost her husband 28 years ago, and now lives in Minnesota.

Thousands of Hmong, a tribal hill people, and Lao, were recruited by the CIA to fight with US forces as the Vietnam conflict spilled into Laos and Cambodia.

Despite promises of US citizenship, many guerrillas and families were left to face the wrath of North Vietnamese Communist forces when defeated US troops left Southeast Asia.

Some veterans and widows did make it to the United States after being airlifted in a desperate operation by CIA-operated Air America, but were denied privileges of citizenship as they could neither read nor write English.

Surviving widows thought their years of agony were at an end earlier this year when Congress passed legislation granting full citizenship to veterans and their families.

But many were snared by a legal technicality and are now fighting for the right to take the US citizenship test with a translator.

Senator Paul Wellstone, who represents the State of Minnesota which is home to scores of the widows, said redress for the widows is years overdue.

"Hmong soldiers died at ten times the rate of American soldiers in the Vietnam War."

"It is only appropriate that we honor their service in a way that is long overdue by giving their widows the tools to become citizens of the country that their husbands died for."

Wellstone co-sponsored a bill that would offer citizenship to the widows, which is expected to come up later this week or earlier this week in the Senate.

Around 35,000 Hmong are thought to have died in the covert CIA-recruited army in Laos.

The farmers turned fighters played a key role in rescuing downed US pilots and protecting radar sites which guided US bombing raids in North Vietnam.

Many more may have died had it not been for the desperate Air America airlift by pilots who defied orders to mount the rescue of men who had been crucial allies in the war.

But Shou Vang and her family were left behind. After her sons were butchered she embarked on her long walk to the Thai border with an infant, before eventually arriving at her new home in the United States.

"I have so many problems, I am losing my memory, but I have come here to ask the Congress to give me citizenship," she said.

Many Hmong faced severe problems assimilating into American culture after being brought from refugee camps in Thailand during a 20-year period up to 1995.

More than 60,000 Hmong live in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, many scattered in grim inner city housing projects.

Many speak poor English and suffer mental health problems, and a tight-knit family based clan system has also further complicated their integration.