Seated from left, Retired Air Force Pilot Col. Joseph Potter, senior advisor, Lao-Hmong American Coalition and Lao-Hmong SGU veterans; Gen. Vang Pao and Col. Bill Lair. Also present were Xang Vang, Cha Vang, SGU Fresno coordinator, Dr. Nhia Lue, Xai Paul Vang, president, SGU, Inc., Long Yang, vice president, and Tzianeng Vang, interim director.
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
ST. PAUL (April 10, 2010) – Aging Hmong veterans of the War in Southeast Asia are facing many of the same health issues as their American counterparts who fought the same war – and leaders are fighting for their rights to veterans benefits.
The effort began about a year ago when legislation was formed in conjunction with Fresno area U.S. Rep. Jim Costa (CA-20), who introduced a bill that did not have much progress in Congress, and the Hmong leaders responded to Veterans Administration concerns about documenting service by establishing the Special Guerrilla Unit Veterans and Families USA, Inc.
Following up on his July 2009 visit to introduce a program to document the service of SGU veterans so that the records are consistent with United States veterans services, General Vang Pao returned to St. Paul together with Col. 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 in town to keynote the International Conference on Hmong Studies.
Also with the legendary leaders was Col. Joseph Potter, a retired Air Force pilot and Vietnam War veteran, who is the National Commander of the United States Vietnamese-American Volunteer Alliance, and National Commanding General of the United States National Defense Corps. He was present in his capacity as senior advisor to the Lao-Hmong American Coalition and to the Lao-Hmong SGU veterans.
The three were joined by the board and members of the SGU Veterans and Families of USA, Inc. in a meeting to discuss mutually agreeable approaches to SGU veterans benefits legislation at 302 University Avenue, Suite 201 in St Paul.
Vang Pao said his staff has long explored opportunities for appropriate benefits and services to deserving SGU veterans. He said aging Hmong veterans that fought the communists in Southeast Asia deserve hospital and nursing home care, burials benefits and support claims for widows and children.
The initial legislation did not progress, in part, they said because it lacked documentation as proof for individual SGU soldier service. The SGU put together a form that is similar in purpose and authority as the DD-214, the service document used by exiting U.S. military servicemen and women, and usually required with application for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The SGU service documentation form requires a $150 processing fee. The local office number is 651-528-6240.
Another hurdle to legislation was that Col. Potter and other leaders expressed concern about asking too much – too soon, and to take an incremental approach by first asking for military burial rights.
The conversation addressed the areas of Hmong SGU participation, command and control in various geographic areas, and its role with the CIA as an integral part of a direct effort, or merely a supported group fighting for a common interest.
Vang Pao said there were three primary SGU missions. The first was to rescue downed American pilots shot down between Vietnam and Laos. The second mission was to disrupt the supply route along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North to South Vietnam. The third was to protect the radar stations that directed all American aircraft going to Hanoi and the far North Vietnam.
The SGU group divided the veterans into three groups. The SGU veterans that are now American citizens, the veterans that are now American legal residents, and the veterans that are now residents or citizens of other countries including Laos. The direct benefits would go to serve the American SGU veterans, and they proposed funding to establish an endowment that would provide nonprofit social services, build hospitals and schools for communities where SGU families now live overseas.
The first Costas bill also drew concern that the bill may have implied that other allies in the conflict would also become eligible – including South Koreans, Cambodians, South Vietnamese, Royal Lao forces, Australians and New Zealanders.
Potter recommended the SGU group restrict the language of the bill to include those allies that were under the direct supervision, pay, or operational instructions from the United States. That could include the SGU, the some 20 battalions of Khmer soldiers trained outside of Cambodia, The Montagnard and a few other smaller groups that the VA benefits would be meant to support.
“You have identified one of the most important principles in this bill,” said Potter. “That the fighters in the Vietnam War who should be recognized and provided VA benefits are only those who were under the direction of, and paid for by the United States government.”
Much of the talk dealt with the personal nature of the relationships. Col. Lair said that he is alive today because of the loyalty, friendship and capabilities of General Vang Pao and the Hmong SGU in Laos. He said he would do all that is possible on their behalf to get them any benefits due them even if it meant going to Washington to testify before Congress.
Potter clarified that VA benefits are complex and time-sensitive, applied to servicemen and women by their time in service and by the conflicts, theater of operations and wars in which they served. The WWII era benefits are not the same as the Vietnam era, which is not the same as the Iraq and Afghanistan era.
Lair said that his own benefits stem from his service in WWII and not from his time in Laos with the CIA. There were comparisons to the Filipino WWII veterans legislation that took six decades to pass when most of them were already gone.