Brief Overview: Hmong soldiers played a major role in what is called the CIA's Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam war. The percentage of their population that gave their lives in the war was enormous. Many ended up in refugee camps in Thailand where they waited for years before being able to emigrate to the United States. Now, some of those who fought with the US are dying and they would like to be buried in Veterans Cemeteries like the men they fought with. But they are being denied this, being told the cemeteries are for Americans only. But I've found that Arlington National Cemetery alone has 61 foreign nationals buried there, including one German and two Italian POW's. The Chatanooga National Cemetery has another 78 German POWs.
The Role of Hmong Soldiers in the Vietnam War. (From culturalorientation.net):
After the defeat of the French in Indochina in 1954, the United States, fearing a communist takeover of Indochina and eventually all of non-communist Asia, became a major player in the region. Laos, strategically situated between Western-aligned Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam and their neighbors Communist China and North Vietnam, became a key domino in the Cold War. President Eisenhower warned that “if Laos were lost, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow and the gateway to India would be opened.”
Map from Geology.com
In the early 1960s, the United States, barred by a Geneva agreement from committing American troops to Laos, launched what later became known as the secret war, a 10-year air and ground campaign that cost an estimated $20 billion. Between 1968 and 1973, U.S. Air Force planes flying out of bases in Thailand dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives on communist targets in Laos, making that country one of the most heavily bombed nations in history.
The ground war in Laos was a CIA-run operation that began as a ragtag collection of a few hundred guerrillas and grew to an army of nearly 40,000. Most of the soldiers in this secret army were Hmong, who the Americans believed possessed an aptitude for warfare that the easygoing lowland Lao lacked. At first, the Hmong were used only to gather intelligence on North Vietnamese movements in Laos, but by the mid-1960s, under the leadership of Major General Vang Pao, Hmong soldiers were rescuing downed American pilots, flying combat missions, and fighting the ground war. Not all Hmong supported the American side, however: About 20% of the Hmong in Laos joined the communist side, under the leadership of Touby Lyfoung’s old enemy, Faydang Lobliayao.
Why did the Hmong join the American cause? Different answers have been proposed by different writers. Anticommunism is one answer that has been offered, and a fear of what life under a North Vietnamese-dominated government would be like for the Hmong is another. Other writers claim that Hmong leaders hoped that a U.S. victory would serve to improve the status of the Hmong in Laos, perhaps even earning them a measure of self-rule.
Whatever their reasons for supporting the United States, almost all Hmong share the conviction that their involvement in the war was part of a promise made to them by the U.S. government. While there is no evidence that the promise was ever written down, almost every Hmong who fought in the war can repeat some version of it. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,“[t]hough there are several versions of the ‘Promise,’ there can be no doubt that assurances were made to support the Hmong during the war, and to provide assistance in the event Laos was lost to the communists.”
The decision to support the United States in Laos cost the Hmong dearly. An estimated 30,000 people, more than 10% of the Hmong population in Laos, were killed in the war. (Had the United States suffered an equivalent proportion of deaths, 17.5 million Americans would have died in the war.) Another 30%—about 100,000 Hmong men, women, and children—became refugees inside Laos, settling into already-existing towns or in resettlement centers. [Emphasis added]
Hmong Vets Denied Burial in US Veterans Cemeteries
An article in the Star Tribune (Minneapolis/St. Paul) describes the problems of Hmong veterans living in the United States who wish to be buried in veterans cemeteries, but are told they cannot.
When they die, these secret warriors of a secret American war want to buried in veterans cemeteries alongside their American comrades. But even though they now are commonly acknowledged as having fought for the United States in northern Laos, they are prohibited by law from being buried in national or state veterans cemeteries, which are reserved for American service members and honorably discharged U.S. military veterans and their families.
. . .Minnesota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito, himself a Vietnam veteran, acknowledged the role Hmong fighters had in the secret war in Laos, and pointed out that the state has proclaimed a special Royal Lao Armed Forces Day each year. But, Shellito said, granting special rights for Hmong fighters would represent a precedent, and any honor bestowed on Hmong veterans would have to be provided equally to others, such as Vietnamese, Iragis, Afghans, and Somalis.
"As you know, the Laotians are not unique in having served alongside U.S. Forces in the past," he wrote. (The article goes into much more detail.)
But it turns out there are 63* foreign nationals interred in Arlington National Cemetery alone:
Foreign Nationals Buried at
Arlington National Cemetery
As you can see, there are non-American soldiers buried in Arlington which is the premier cemetery for active military and veterans. This includes Vietnamese, even though Shellito mentioned in the article above that needing to allow Vietnamese soldiers was a reason not to allow Hmong. Altogether there are 131 national veterans cemeteries and about 90 state veterans cemeteries.
There's a even a German POW among those buried at Arlington and two Italian POWs.
How did Hilberath end up at Arlington? Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners were given military funerals at the nearest government cemetery. At the time that was Arlington. After dying of an undisclosed illness, Hilberath along with deceased Italian soldiers Arcangelo Prudenza and Mario Batista were buried in Arlington.There are 78 more German POWs from WWI buried in the Chatanooga National Cemetery.
In addition to Civil War veterans, there are 78 German prisoners of war buried here. Pursuant to provisions included in the peace treaty between the United States and Germany at the end of World War I, the German government sought the location and status of the gravesites of Germans who died while detained in the United States. An investigation conducted by the War Department found that the largest number of German POWs was interred at Chattanooga National Cemetery. For a short time, thought was given to removing all other German interments to Chattanooga. In the end, however, the German government decided that only 23 remains from Hot Springs National Cemetery should be reinterred here. The German government assumed the cost of disinterment and transportation to Chattanooga, and erected a monument to commemorate the POWs.I understand that some of these foreign nationals ended up in US veterans cemeteries at an earlier time and laws have probably changed. But the law can be changed again. It would seem that these soldiers who played such an important role in the Vietnam war and who are not welcome in today's Laos, should have access to burial in US veterans cemeteries, especially since enemy combatants such as the German and Italian Prisoners of War are interred in US veterans cemeteries.
The Council of Asian Pacific Minnesotans is working to change the law.