By Jessica Thill
Another Veterans Day has come and gone with no substantive recognition of Hmong-Lao soldiers, who played an undisputedly critical role in the US war in Vietnam.
They paid dearly for their decision to ally with the United States: more than 35,000 Hmong people died during the conflict. Tens of thousands of survivors were forced to flee to overcrowded refugee camps in Thailand following the war to escape persecution by a vengeful Lao government. From there, many relocated to the United States; today, California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have the largest Hmong American communities. In Wisconsin, Hmong is the third most commonly spoken language (after English and Spanish). La Crosse County is home to an estimated 6,000+ Hmong people, all of whom are Hmong-Lao veterans or their direct descendants.
In 2019, it seemed as though Hmong-Lao veterans were on the cusp of being formally recognized as U.S. combat veterans. In August, La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind spoke at a ceremony dedicating a Hmong-Lao Veterans Memorial in Freedom Park in north La Crosse. In October, state Rep. Jill Billings and former state Sen. Jennifer Shilling co-sponsored 2019 Assembly Bill 618/Senate Bill 562, which proposed extending state veterans’ benefits to former Hmong-Lao soldiers. Earlier this year, Governor Evers proclaimed May 14 Hmong-Lao Veterans Day in Wisconsin. These efforts have earned elected officials accolades (and presumably some votes), but these symbolic gestures have so far done nothing to improve the daily lives of Hmong-Lao veterans and their children.
The passage of a state bill would provide tangible benefits to Hmong-Lao vets, including access to property tax credits, license fee waivers for hunting and fishing, homeless veteran interventions, and workforce assistance. More importantly, its passage could help pave the way for similar action by the federal government, which would dramatically impact the quality of life for the hundreds of thousands of Hmong people nationwide. Recognition as veterans could deliver critical financial benefits to Hmong families, who are almost twice as likely as other U.S. residents to live in poverty. For example, they could access Veterans’ Affairs health care, take advantage of expanded education benefits for themselves and their families, receive vets’ disability payments, and participate in home ownership assistance programs. Also at issue is the right to veterans’ burial and memorial benefits, some of which became available in 2018, but only at the federal level with significant restrictions.
The proposed state-level legislation was referred to the Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs, where it died last April. According to Rep. Billings, because a public hearing or vote was never held, the bill will need to be reintroduced to be considered for passage. As Sen. Shilling authored the 2019 bill but then abruptly left the Senate in May, it is unclear whether a new bill will have the champion it needs when the legislature reconvenes in January 2021.
Email questions or story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Top image credit: Veterans listen during the dedication ceremony for the Minnesota Memorial for the United States and Alliance Special Forces in Laos in June 2016 on the State Capitol grounds/Peter Cox/Minnesota Public Radio.
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