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Connecticut becomes first state to give Hmong, Laotian veterans burial rights

Dozens of Hmong veterans marched with their U.S. allies at Arlington National Cemetery to remember a long-ago war in Laos, on May 15, 2015 in Arlington, Va.

MICHAEL DOYLE, MCCLATCHY DC/TNS

By ABIGAIL BRONE | The Hartford Courant | Published: June 28, 2019

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — As 77-year-old Gen. Sar Phouthasack stepped up to the podium in Veterans Memorial Park Thursday afternoon, his excitement was palpable.

“I’m so happy, I woke up at four this morning,” Phouthasack told the group gathered around the restored Army Huey helicopter memorial dedicated to Hmong and Laos soldiers.

Phouthasack, a Vietnam War veteran and former member of the Hmong and Laotian Special Guerrilla Unit who now resides in Windsor, spoke at the signing of a statewide policy granting burial rights for the SGU veterans in Connecticut.

“This is my country,” Phouthasack said. “I don’t know how to thank this country for what it has given to me, so many opportunities.”

Connecticut became the first state in the nation to provide the rights after Congress enacted the Hmong Veterans’ Service Recognition Act in 2018. The act provides Laotian and Hmong veterans deemed eligible by the Department of Veterans Affairs burial rights in the nation’s national cemeteries, excluding Arlington National Cemetery. It also allowed for states to extend burial eligibility to Laotian and Hmong veterans in state veterans cemeteries, like the one in Middletown.

The Laotian and Hmong SGU fought alongside U.S. troops in the Vietnam War, often rescuing downed U.S. soldiers and working with the CIA.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz began the ceremony, discussing her pride in Connecticut being the first state to recognize the SGU soldiers and offer burial rights. With more than 200,000 veterans in the state of Connecticut, Bysiewicz said it was time for the community to begin a program to honor World War II and Vietnam War veterans that did not previously receive thanks and recognition.

“You deserve this, your families and yourselves,” state Rep. Dave Yaccarino, R-North Haven, told the crowd, congratulating the newly recognized Laotian and Hmong Vietnam veterans present.

To Brig. Gen. Daniel McHale, who spoke at the ceremony, this is just the first step in paying back and recognizing the Laotian and Hmong soldiers. McHale called for the Laotian and Hmong veterans to receive the same medical treatment and benefits other veterans receive.

“We need to get federal veterans associations to recognize (the Laotian and Hmong veterans) have the same issues we do,” McHale said. “They were exposed to Agent Orange.”

The SGU continued to fight after the Vietnam War technically ended in 1975 and many were later sent to refugee and prisoner of war camps by the communists.

After the war ended, many of the Laotian and Hmong fighters came to America seeking refuge, and hundreds came to Connecticut. As of 2018, about 40 of these veterans still reside in the state, Phouthasack said.

Phouthasack expressed his gratitude for the country and the long-awaited recognition, saying, “Life is too short. Please do something for your family, your community, your country.”

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