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At Issue: A promise of recognition

Published (4/17/2009)
By Lee Ann Schutz
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Chia Koua Vang, right, and Charles Vu listen March 13 as the House Veterans Affairs Division discusses extending veterans benefits to allied soldiers from Vietnam and Laos who assisted the United States armed forces during the Vietnam War. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)No one knows for sure how many boys in Southeast Asia were armed and trained in the 1960s to become members of an elite Special Guerilla Unit, and partner with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

Chia Koua Vang was 15 years old when he joined the unit.

That began his journey from the jungle hills of Laos, and ultimately to his resettlement in the United States as a refugee in 1978.

The reconnaissance help the unit provided to U.S. troops is indisputable; and the pride Vang feels of being “hand-picked” to be trained, to train and serve side-by-side with the U.S. Army is unwavering. His desire to learn, and also to help the United States control the unrest in his country were great motivators for him to take up arms.

He never asked for anything from the U.S. government, and the government never promised anything in return beyond a modest stipend and commissary privileges while serving. “And when you have nothing, a little is a lot,” Vang said through an interpreter: his son-in-law, Rep. Cy Thao (DFL-St. Paul).

However, there are some, Thao included, who feel the unit’s contributions should be recognized with veteran status, making them eligible for benefits.

Thao sponsors HF1295 that would qualify certain former Vietnam or Laos residents who aided the U.S armed forces during the Vietnam War for help from the State Soldiers Assistance Program. This fund is used to provide short-term financial help for state veterans in need.

If enacted, Minnesota would be the first state to provide some veteran assistance to these forces. Thao is hopeful the bill will provide the impetus needed to have Congress confer full veteran status on the allied forces.

Vang sat alongside Thao and Charles Vu, chairman of the Lao Hmong American Coalition, during an emotional House Veterans Affairs Division hearing March 13.

“They risked just as much in helping the U.S. government during the Vietnam War. … If we can give them some basic benefits — like a pair of glasses or support with heat; these are some basic needs,” Thao said.

As with so many issues regarding the Vietnam War, veteran recognition for allied forces is controversial. One problem is the lack of official documentation of their involvement.

“They were basically trained by the CIA, for covert activities,” Thao said. Vang said that unit members received identification cards, and many still have them or have their numbers memorized.

Nevertheless, proving records are legitimate is a major obstacle, according to Mike Puglesi, deputy commissioner for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Not that we want to question them, but we need to verify the (use of) taxpayer dollars … try to be as fiscally responsible as possible.”

He said the bill opens the door to a slippery slope. “Our charter is to take care of our American veterans. … I firmly believe this is a federal issue.” He said expanding eligibility for soldiers assistance funds could have an impact on current resources.

Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba (DFL-Long Prairie) countered, “These are guys that worked right next to ours, and they had our cards. It feels really awkward for us to not help them, even for any little thing. They fought as hard as anyone else.”

Some of the stiffest opposition to the bill comes from the state’s veterans organizations.

Stan Kowalski, state commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, likened this situation to his service in Europe during World War II, and said he would not be eligible for benefits from France or Germany.

“We were fighting a war for the Laotian and the Vietnam people. To say they deserve the right to be called a United States veteran, I can’t buy that. To give them the same benefits as others, I can’t buy that,” he said.

But, Rep. Doug Magnus (R-Slayton), who served in Vietnam alongside people like Vang, spoke passionately about the service they provided and their later contributions as U.S. citizens, including paying taxes.

Without solid numbers of those who would be eligible for state benefits and therefore its fiscal impact, the bill was tabled by the division.

But Thao was successful in his lobbying efforts to “get something going.” A provision was inserted into the omnibus agriculture, rural economies and veterans affairs policy bill requiring the veterans affairs commissioner to ask federal agencies to determine the number and identities of Minnesota residents who, as former residents of Vietnam or Laos aided U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War. The information could then be used to help the Legislature decide the feasibility of extending state veterans benefits.

A companion, SF1437, sponsored by Sen. Mee Moua (DFL-St. Paul), awaits action by the Senate Agriculture and Veterans Committee.

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