FRESNO, Calif. (KSEE) – It’s been more than a decade since Vang Pao’s passing. The Hmong leader was once called the biggest hero of the Vietnam War by the CIA for his leadership during the war. And yet, the U.S. Army rejected a request to bury him with full military honors at a national cemetery at the time of his death.
Under new legislation now heading to President Biden’s desk, Hmong Vietnam War veterans will have the military honor they’ve been waiting for.
“During the war, [the Special Guerrilla Unit] was not well known to the outside world,” said Cher Vang, vice-president of the Special Guerrilla Unit (SGU) Veterans chapter in Fresno.
Led by General Vang Pao, they were a group of Hmong secret soldiers in the Vietnam War who were trained and recruited by the CIA to support U.S. forces. Pao later led tens of thousands of his people into exile.
Since stepping on U.S. soil, none of them have received any veterans benefits for their service. When Vang Pao died in Clovis in 2011, the army denied a request to bury him at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Now, more than a decade later, legislation by Valley congressman Jim Costa is aiming to change how these fallen soldiers are honored.
“There’s estimated to be 4,000 to 5,000 left that are still living,” the 16th District representative said.
The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) expands eligibility for interment in national cemeteries to all members of the Special Guerilla Units who fought in support of the United States during the Vietnam War.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Costa.
The NDAA only applies to Veterans’ Affairs National Cemeteries, which means Arlington is not included.
However, local Hmong leaders are celebrating this step.
“[SGU Veterans] have a sense of pride,” said Vang. “They feel like what they fought for during the war was not in vain.”
Vang estimates there are a couple hundred living vets in the Valley, including his older brothers. He said his late father was also part of SGU.
“When they’d be leaving the house to the battlefront, they did not know if they’d be able to come back.”
Vang adds there still isn’t enough visibility about the role of Hmong soldiers in the Vietnam War, but said he’s happy the heroes in his community are receiving a long-awaited recognition.
The legislation also includes provisions to combat sexual assault in the service, authorizes pay increases to those serving, takes steps to ensure diversity, among other changes.