Hawj introduces bill to construct Hmong-Lao veterans memorial

The current memorial wall established at the Capitol includes the names of Minnesotans who lost their lives in Vietnam. However, Hmong soldiers who helped U.S. forces but were then forced out of their homeland and settled in Minnesota have no memorial. (File photo Linda Baumeister/Review)

On June 13, 2009, veterans' organizations in Minnesota teamed up for the largest Vietnam veterans event in state history. Here, a visitor studies the "traveling wall" exhibit set up at the State Capitol. Now, Hmong veterans are hoping to have a memorial for their military service installed on the Capitol grounds. (File photo Linda Baumeister/Review)

Monument would be built on state Capitol grounds

Since Yia Michael Thao’s father, a Hmong Vietnam War veteran, passed away in 2008, it has been up to the Thao family to remember and honor his service. Although Thao’s father fought with Americans, he could not be buried in a national or state veterans cemetery, nor did he receive military benefits after the war. His name is not included on the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

This is why Thao, an East Side resident and business owner, is one of the many passionate proponents of state Sen. Foung Hawj’s new legislation proposing a Hmong-Lao veterans commemorative memorial.

“My whole family is veterans,” Thao said. “A couple years ago there was movement to make a monument, and I was hoping it would be built so my father could see it. Unfortunately, he passed away ... and didn’t get to see it.”

Groups have long advocated for extending official military status to Hmong veterans, including a bill last year to expand burial eligibility at national cemeteries to Hmong and Lao American veterans. However, these attempts have proven unsuccessful.

Hawj hopes this bill will be more fruitful than previous attempts to recognize Hmong and Lao veterans.

“It’s needed. There’s no monument in Minnesota to commemorate the Hmong veterans. There’s no better place than on state (Capitol) grounds,” said Hawj, a DFL state senator from the East Side.

Hmong immigration following Vietnam War

“It was the cost of the war that led us to this country,” Hawj explained.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. CIA began training a group of Laotian Hmong people to fight with the Americans against the North Vietnamese Army. This group, led by General Vang Pao, became known as the Special Guerilla Unit. About 60 percent of the Hmong men in Laos participated in what has been called the “Secret War.”

Hmong involvement with the U.S. in Vietnam was originally kept secret during the early stages of combat, but about 30,000 Hmong lives were lost during the war.

After the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the Hmong people became subject to persecution, many choosing to take refuge in Thailand.

The U.S. government passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, which allowed about 3,500 Hmong men who served in the “Secret War” to migrate to the U.S. Later, in 1976, an additional 11,000 were allowed to enter the U.S., and by 1978 there were about 30,000 Hmong living in America.

However, these numbers only reflect the number of men who fought. Veterans’ families were not able to enter the U.S. until the Refugee Act of 1980. Today, about 300,000 Hmong live in the U.S., with about 65,000 in the Twin Cities, according to the 2010 census.

About 400 Hmong veterans currently live in Minnesota.

A bill to commemorate great sacrifices

When Hawj first took office in January, he was aware of the lack of proper recognition for Hmong and Lao veterans who served in the Vietnam War.

“Some Hmong organizations hold memorials at the Vietnam Veterans monument here, sometimes on Memorial Day, Veterans Day or July 22 (Lao-Hmong Recognition Day),” Hawj said. “Having something more permanent would be worthwhile to honor (Hmong and Lao veterans).”

Hawj explained that the groundwork for the bill had been laid several years prior.

“The land for the monument was reserved by my predecessor (state Sen. Mee Moua, who served in the Legislature from 2002-2011),” Hawj said.

“(At the time) the community did come together to make an agreement on the design of the memorial, but with the economy and the recession ... it’s like they say - seven years of luxury and seven years of famine. It never came together.”

The commemorative memorial would be built adjacent to the Vietnam Memorial that currently exists on state Capitol grounds.

The bill requests $500,000 in bonds to design and construct a memorial, but requires a guarantee that at least $150,000 be committed by non-state organizations.

Several major Hmong veterans groups, including the Lao Veterans of America, Special Guerrilla Unit Veterans of America and Royal Lao Veterans of America, among others, have come forward to help design and fund the monument.

The bi-partisan legislation was introduced in February and has since been making its way through various committees. A companion bill, sponsored by state Rep. John Lesch, who represents a portion of the East Side, is also making its way through the House of Representatives.

“Never too late”

Gov. Mark Dayton has declared March 29 Vietnam Veterans Day in Minnesota.

The proclamation states, “It is never too late to pay tribute and honor those who answered our nation’s call in Vietnam.”

Both Hawj and Thao recognize the importance of honoring the men who fought for the U.S. while they are still alive.

“The youngest vets are in their 60s. The number can only get smaller and smaller. We want to be able to give them recognition while they’re still here,” Hawj said.

Thao, whose father was unable to see the fruition of a Hmong veterans memorial, expressed a similar sentiment.

“(The monument project is) a way for veterans to be proud of their sacrifices.”

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7814.

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