If you’ve seen the Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino, you’ve heard of the Hmong. The Hmong are an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Throughout the Vietnam War, the United States recruited thousands of Hmong young men to fight against North Vietnamese and Laotian communist forces in what is now called the “Secret War” in Laos. After the Vietnam War, thousands of Hmong refugees fled and resettled in western nations – mostly in the United States.

Today, Hmong families can be found in all fifty states, but they’ve built large communities in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. More than a quarter-of-a-million Hmong people now live in the U.S. Scores of Hmong soldiers who fought on behalf of the United States in the Secret War are U.S. citizens, but many of those combat veterans – now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s – are still dealing with the Secret War. Many were injured and disabled in combat, and the others still carry the pain, memories, and psychological wounds of war. Although their role was kept secret in the early stages of the conflict, they made considerable sacrifices to help the United States.

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However, as unconventional fighters for the United States in an unofficial war, Hmong veterans receive no military benefits, but some people are now saying that they should – as a way to acknowledge and honor their heroic contributions. President Barack Obama recognized the legacy of the war in Laos during his visit there in September, but activists are demanding more than merely symbolic recognition of the Hmong veterans. In fact, even some lawmakers are suggesting that Hmong veterans should receive health care benefits, pensions, and the other rights and benefits that are usually awarded those who serve the United States in combat.

WHAT WAS THE HMONG ROLE IN THE SECRET WAR?

In the 1960s, as the Vietnam War impacted all of southeast Asia, the CIA recruited, armed, and trained thousands of Hmong men and boys to create military units assigned to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail – the North’s supply line to their insurgent Viet Cong allies in the South – and to otherwise assist U.S. forces. “The United States acknowledges that the Hmong people fought for them,” says Hmong veteran Tong Blia Xiong, “but they haven’t officially recognized the Hmong and given us the right to ask for veterans benefits or services.”

Xiong and other Lao Veterans of America members have struggled for years to raise the public’s awareness and to get the attention of lawmakers. Finally, in 2015, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska sponsored legislation – the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act – and Representative Jim Costa of California offered the same proposal in the House of Representatives. The proposal offers no benefits. It merely allows those who fought in support of the United States during the Vietnam Era to be buried in national cemeteries. Still, it would be the first official recognition of Hmong veterans by Congress, opening the door to further action.

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Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, a co-sponsor of the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act, said in a statement to the Wausau Daily Herald, “America is grateful for the Hmong who fought alongside the United States in southeast Asia. We must continue to work to acknowledge the service of Hmong fighters and ensure that they receive the support they deserve.”

WHAT IS THE STATUS OF LEGISLATION HONORING HMONG VETERANS?

Although it has the support of lawmakers from both parties, neither the House nor the Senate has passed the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin’s communications director, John Kraus, told the Wausau Daily Herald that the proposal was one of several offered as amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, “but there was no agreement on amendments and that package didn’t get through.” Kraus added, “It is unclear what Majority Leader McConnell plans to do with the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act, the Veterans First Act, and other veterans bills when the Senate is back in session.”

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In September, a memorial honoring Hmong veterans was dedicated in Wausau, Wisconsin. At the request of local Hmong community leaders, the memorial tells a detailed story of the Hmong people and their history and sacrifices. Hmong veteran Tong Blia Xiong said, “When they (Congress) recognize that the Hmong did aid the Americans – when this is done, then we can go back and ask for our specific rights and dues.”

U.S. military veterans can turn to the Department of Veterans Affairs for assistance with medical care and disability benefits, and an experienced Indiana veterans’ disability law attorney can help U.S. military veterans in this state secure the benefits that they rightfully deserve. If you fought unofficially for the United States during the Vietnam Era – that is, if you fought, but not as a member of the U.S. armed forces – you are not officially entitled to veterans’ benefits, but an Indiana veterans’ disability law attorney can discuss your rights and may be able to suggest some options and alternatives – especially if you were seriously injured or permanently disabled.

WHAT SHOULD VETERANS DO WHEN BENEFITS ARE DENIED?

For U.S. military veterans, if you are denied benefits that you believe are rightfully yours, a veterans’ disability lawyer can provide sound advice and experienced legal representation if you wish to file an appeal or if you simply want to learn more about your options. The right attorney can also conduct a comprehensive review of your case, and if necessary, refer you to the medical or vocational specialists who can offer more help.

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Hmong veterans and others who fought with the United States – but not officially – may nevertheless in some cases be eligible for some type of benefits – particularly if they are United States citizens. Every individual’s situation and eligibility will be different, but an experienced Indiana veterans’ disability law attorney will be able to offer the appropriate advice, and if necessary, legal services and representation.

A former Wisconsin County administrator, Vietnam veteran Mort McBain, served on the planning committee for the Hmong memorial in Wausau. “Speaking as a U.S. veteran, I think it’s really important that we recognize these Hmong veterans for what they have done for this country,” McBain said. “It’s really time…. They’re the only group in the nation like this that have never been given proper benefits.”