Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The Hmong veterans of the former Special Guerilla Unit (SGU) in Laos that fought for the United States during the Vietnam War, are facing many of the same health and social issues as their American counterparts that fought the same war.
On the occasion of an annual conference of leaders prior to the Hmong Sports Tournament, General Vang Pao addressed a full house last Sunday at Lao Family Community in St. Paul, regarding a renewed effort to grant full U.S. veterans status to former SGU soldiers and their survivors if already passed on.
Vang Pao was greeted by a full cadre of former high ranking officials that were here from all over the country, France and Australia for the annual conference. Bee Vang served as the emcee for the event that was chaired by Long Yang, executive director of Lao Family and a former SGU captain.
Vang Pao said that his organization has long explored various opportunities to obtain the appropriate benefits and services for deserving SGU veterans. He said that aging Hmong veterans that fought the communists in Southeast Asian deserve hospital and nursing home care, burials benefits and support claims for widows and children.
He said that they fought in defense of the United States and that legislation is currently being formed that will be presented for introduction to Congress on behalf of SGU veterans for their long overdue status.
One barrier to receptive legislators has been the documentation process for former military personnel. U.S. military servicemen and women exit the service with a DD-214, an official form that indicates proof of service and includes all essential information for use in future benefits requests.
Vang Pao presented a sample form for SGU veterans that would document service and carry his signature along with that of Colonel James W. “Bill” Lair, the now retired CIA officer who in the 1950s, organized the training and support of the Lao-Hmong effort in the “secret war” against the Viet Minh from 1959 to 1975.
Lair was unable to attend for poor health, but sent a message that he expected to be better soon, and would be signing the application to register the SGU members with the U.S. government.
Dr. Charles A. Waters, a member of the American Legion in California, and an advocate of the SGU recognition effort, said he encouraged SGU veterans to cooperate and provide information as proof of their service.
Waters said that similar efforts in the past have met resistance from veterans groups and policymakers. As hurdles were crossed it became apparent that the Veterans Administration had a concern with authentication and verification of SGU service.
Now, he said they are working with Rep. Jim Costa (CA-20) of Fresno, to reintroduce and earlier bill that was turned back previously. He said that the first hurdle is to grant burial rights to allow Hmong SGU and other refugee veterans of Southeast Asia. It would allow them to be buried in national cemeteries.
He said that future efforts would add the full gamut of benefits one at a time, to avoid the risk of getting a one-bill with everything kicked back for one reason or another.
“We have to do something, you and me together,” said Waters. “We will do this one at a time.”
William Dietzel, a former Air Force Master Sergeant, spoke about his role in organizing the outreach campaign. He showed a 10 minute instruction video that would be sent out to all know veterans and the families of deceased veterans.
He said the program is ready to start and that people are already signing up in Fresno. He said that the early feedback might create an amended application form, but that this version has already met the approval of a Department of Veterans Affairs review, as far as what information would be necessary were it to be adopted as an official document for benefits.
As the form requires drivers license and social security numbers along with immigration and veterans information, Dietzel reassured the veterans that the information would remain private and be used for official purposes only.
Minnesota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Clark Dyrud was present to express his support and appreciation to the Hmong veterans of Minnesota. As a Vietnam War veteran he said he recognized the impact of the effort and of General Vang Pao’s leadership.
“I want to personally thank all of you who answered the call from the United States government to help us,” said Dyrud.
He also recognized the efforts of the various Hmong nonprofits and mutual assistance associations, and encouraged strong effort to get a full community count for the 2010 Census, to ensure that adequate resources will be available for the needs of the community.
“I wish you well as you move toward recognition of veterans status at the national level,” he added.
The form requires a $150 processing fee. For more information contact the local office of the SGU at 651-528-6240.