Mistreatment and Negligence of Hmong and American Veterans

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On their fiftieth anniversary, my grandmother clutched onto my grandfather’s arm tightly, giving him a sad, teary-eyed smile as memories of the past five decades flashed before her eyes, “Peb kam tsim nyob ntev” (Let’s live for a long time). My grandfather, Cha S. Yang, lived in Laos during the Laotian Civil War, which lasted from 1959 to 1975. During the Laotian Civil War, Laotian and Hmong tribes fought alongside American troops who had sided with the anti-communist Royal Lao government against the communist Pathet Lao government in order to retain their autonomy in Laos and suppress communism. However, after the war in which the communist government prevailed, many non-American veterans, including Yang, were mistreated due to the lack of proper veterans’ benefits. Yet, that only accounts for the lack of benefits for non-American veterans. If non-American veterans are already being inconsiderately treated in this fashion, the manner in which American treats their American veterans can’t be any better. For this reason, Americans need to improve their treatment of veterans because wars revolutionize lives and many returning soldiers are denied of veterans’ benefits, which brings light to the persisting issue of improper care for American veterans.

After the Laotian Civil War ended, the tribesmen who participated had their lives changed completely, as do many soldiers who fight in wars, which America takes into account, but doesn’t properly address. From their country life in straw houses to living in fear of being ravaged by the communist government, Laotian and Hmong tribes were forced to live in fear. The communist government had prevailed as the American troops retreated, leaving the tribes in Laos to fend for themselves. As I interviewed Yang, he describes that his life before the war consisted of “living dumbly” due to the lack of schooling, but he saw the war as “an opportunity for a brighter future.” Yang discusses how grateful he was for being one of the many limited families that were airlifted into America as the war came to an end, but he describes stories of neighbors and close family-friends who were unfortunate enough to face the wrath of the communist Pathet Lao government. Many tribes were pillaged, mass-murdered, or died of disease as women were raped when they attempted to make a dangerous journey across the Mekong River to reside within the safety lines and immigration camps of Thailand. In other words, many tribes had saw the partnership with American troops during the Laotian Civil War as an opportunity to escape their provincial lives so they fought diligently alongside them.

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However, when the communist government triumphed, the American troops returned as many tribes remained in Laos. The communist government viewed the tribes as enemies of the country and violently tormented them, which meant they could never return to the mountainside country life, a life which they had known for generations. Despite having their lives drastically changed, members of the tribe fortunate enough to get airlifted to America didn’t receive recognition as veterans of America for an extended period of time. The Hmong Naturalization Act of 2000 (“AILA - INS Fact Sheet on Changes to the Hmong Veterans' Naturalization Act of 2000”), which simplified the naturalizing process of Hmong immigrants by eliminating the English-speaking portion of the Naturalization Test, took nearly thirty years to enact, finally somewhat acknowledging their participation in the war. Furthermore, from experience, this war is barely touched upon in American history books; the Hmong tribes aren’t even mentioned in text but get generalized as Laotian instead. With that, although the war had completely altered the traditions of their means of living, they were essentially rewarded with nothing after having fought for a country that they’ve never set foot in, nor were they recognized for their diligence until years later following decades of advocacy. In addition to their changed lives and unrecognized war effort, Hmong tribes were unable to receive veterans’ benefits.

Despite shedding blood and sweat for America to suppress communism and maintain autonomy, Hmong tribes weren’t able to receive veterans’ benefits for an extended amount of time. The veterans’ benefits include compensation for disabilities, pension, eligibility for burial in a Veterans’ Affair national cemetery, and others that help a returning soldier readjust to the basis of societal life. In the article “Costa Fights to Expand Hmong, Lao Veterans Burial Rights,” Jim Costa, a Californian congressman, brings attention to an error in the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act 2018, signed by Congress and President Trump. The act enabled Hmong veterans who became naturalized after the Hmong Naturalization Act of 2000 to be buried in the national VA cemetery which meant “only Hmong and Lao SGU Veterans who became naturalized citizens after the Hmong Veterans Naturalization Act of 2000 are eligible to receive burial benefits.” Hence, fast forward forty years after the war, Hmong veterans of America are still being denied of certain benefits, such as the ability to be buried in the VA national cemetery, due to certain restrictions that jeopardize their eligibility. This brings light to the many veterans that reside within America who are ineligible for veterans’ benefits, resulting in the possible inability to obtain a stable job or the necessary medical care. On a similar note, Yang’s son, Teng Yang, explained to me that Yang didn’t start receiving pension until the early 2010s for his service, demonstrating the persisting years of not receiving benefits. He explained to me that the reason for this period of time was the lack of instructions to guide him through the application process for veterans’ benefits, and whenever they applied, Yang was rejected for many years before finally receiving it. He was ineligible for the benefit of a pension despite being over the age of sixty-five years old and being unable to work anymore, which showcases the inadequacy for America’s method of treatment for veterans. Hence, Hmong veterans being denied of veterans’ benefits accentuates America’s incompetence in dealing with veterans.

Hence, both non-American and American veterans are being mistreated due to the lack of veterans’ benefits. Unbeknownst to many, a number of returning soldiers from war are denied benefits or are ineligible for them, which means that the byproducts of war―physical injuries and mental illnesses―are left unattended to. According to “What America Owes Its Veterans,” Philip Carter points out that veterans represent a considerably large amount of the nation’s homeless population and various VA clinics “overprescribe” and lack the resources to medicate alcohol and substance abuse. Furthermore, Carter brings attention to veterans “discharged with ‘bad paper,’” referring to individuals who performed a minor misconduct in service “for which the root cause is often posttraumatic stress.” Because of this, they are denied veterans’ benefits and are “more likely to struggle with unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide than other veterans.” In other words, veterans are often rendered ineligible for benefits due to misconduct or receive insufficient care. Tying this back to Yang, veterans also don’t receive the proper instructions on how to apply for benefits and therefore cannot take advantage of it. All of these factors can essentially add up to unemployment, homelessness, addiction, or even suicidal tendencies as Carter notes. In his article, he acknowledges that the federal government has created organizations and programs to control these issues, but emphasize their ineffectiveness. Hence, just like the Hmong veterans who aren’t recognized as American veterans and are still denied certain benefits, American soldiers today are also being mistreated as they aren’t receiving the benefits they need. Granted, money and work are necessary to continue pushing for effective programs to aid these issues, but these problems showcase the prolonged inadequacy of America’s poor addressment regarding these concerns.

Hence, the revolutionized lives of soldiers and the denied veterans’ benefits brings attention to the persisting issue of inadequate care of veterans. To start, Hmong tribes who fought in the Laotian Civil War had their lives completely changed―from their provincial lives to living in fear against the wrath of the communist Pathet Lao government―but even their diligent fighting wasn’t recognized until decades after the war. Furthermore, due to the long overdue recognition, Hmong veterans were long denied of many benefits, some of which they are still denied of such as VA national cemetery burial rights. Finally, all of this together, brings light to how veterans in general are being improperly cared for in America due to the lack of resources and various reasons of ineligibility. Although America is making progress to improve this issue, this veterans matter is one of many problems that reside within the country, meaning America needs to work on improving their methods of addressing issues to avoid having it persist as long as it did with veterans’ benefits.

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