Hmong veterans of the Vietnam War would receive Congressional Gold Medal under push by lawmakers

By: - December 5, 2023 5:50 am

The color guard at Hmong Lao Memorial Day, Cadott Veterans Memorial in Cadott, Wisconsin, May 14, 2023. (Photo by Nao Shoua Xiong)

WASHINGTON — Members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation are leading a bipartisan effort to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Hmong veterans of the Vietnam War.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency recruited the Hmong people as soldiers to help combat communism’s spread through Southeast Asia. The Hmong, who lived and worked as farmers in Laos amid the rise of the communist Pathet Lao, served in intelligence operations, disrupted the Ho Chi Minh Trail — the North Vietnamese supply route — and rescued U.S. pilots in what is known as the “secret war.”

During and after the war, the Hmong faced tremendous casualties. Hmong soldiers “died at a rate ten times as high as that of American soldiers in Vietnam,” according to a press release from the office of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.

Yee Leng Xiong, the executive director of the Hmong American Center in Wausau, Wisconsin, said that when he recently spoke with Hmong elders, they told him that they fear that their communities are only respected for past contributions during the Vietnam War.

Xiong said the elders are afraid that once the remaining Hmong veterans die, “the United States would no longer respect the Hmong community.”

“Many of our Hmong veterans actually don’t know if the United States government actually loves them, or recognizes them or will claim them as their own,” Xiong said.

They want to know that “their commitment, their contribution, meant something,” Xiong said.

He said the Hmong Congressional Gold Medal Act is a “huge step” in recognizing Hmong veterans. The act, introduced in both the House and Senate, would honor the veterans for their service with the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress.

Calling Wisconsin home

Approximately 319,373 Hmong Americans live in the United States and an estimated 54,200 reside in Wisconsin, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017-2021 American Community Survey. This means that about one-fifth of the nation’s Hmong American population calls Wisconsin home, according to the Census Bureau data.

The 2020 decennial census, unlike the American Community Survey, did not separate the Hmong American population from the Asian American population.

Johnson and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, are cosponsors of the Senate bill awarding Congressional Gold Medals, which they introduced Nov. 9 alongside Sens. Gary Peters of Michigan, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

“I’m happy to lead with Senator Peters to ensure the Hmong people get the recognition they deserve for their dedication to the fight against communism,” Johnson said in a press release. “Wisconsin is proud to be home to so many brave individuals who are dedicated to liberty and freedom and opposed to government tyranny.”

Baldwin said that “we owe” the Hmong veterans for their “service and sacrifice.”

“Wisconsin has a special bond with the Hmong people, and I am proud to honor and recognize their courageous service to our country,” Baldwin said in a statement.

Baldwin has also introduced bipartisan legislation that would recognize Southeast Asian Diasporas’ contributions during the Vietnam War. This includes Hmong communities.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican, re-introduced the House bill awarding Congressional Gold Medals in March after sponsoring its previous version last year. Wisconsin’s U.S. Reps. Gwen Moore, Tom Tiffany, Bryan Steil, Scott Fitzgerald, Derrick Van Orden and Mark Pocan are among the 49 listed cosponsors.

“The Hmong people fearlessly served in the fight against communism, and they deserve to be recognized for their honorable service,” Tiffany said in a statement. “We are lucky to call many of them neighbors in Wisconsin today, and the Hmong Congressional Gold Medal Act ensures their service and sacrifice is not forgotten.”

Remembering Hmong sacrifices

After the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, the Hmong were targeted by the communist regimes of North Vietnam and Laos.

According to the Hmong American Center website, the Hmong “were hunted down, taken to concentration camps, put into hard labor and persecuted. Their villages were sprayed with chemical weapons and bombed with napalm.”

More than 10% — or about 35,000 — of the Hmong population in Laos died, according to the Hmong American Center website.

Forced to flee their homeland, the Hmong took refuge in Thailand before many eventually moved to other nations, including the U.S., according to the Hmong American Center. Today, most Hmong Americans can be found in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Michigan.

Xiong of the Hmong American Center said that as of March of this year, there were fewer than 280 Hmong veterans left in Wisconsin, but there have been many veteran deaths since then.

The dwindling number of surviving Hmong veterans, who served about 50 years ago, creates a greater sense of urgency for recognition, Xiong said. He said members of Wisconsin’s Hmong communities are “extremely terrified” that within the next five to 10 years, there will not be any surviving veterans left.

“We want to make sure that they know that they are loved, that they’re respected, and recognized for their contributions,” Xiong said.

Hmong contributions to Wisconsin economy

Xiong said it is important to recognize the ways in which Wisconsin’s Hmong population has economically benefited the state.

In Marathon County — where Wausau is located — many Hmong farm ginseng, an herbal root. Marathon County grows the most ginseng in Wisconsin, Xiong said. Wisconsin is also the largest ginseng producer in the U.S.

The Hmong community in Wausau has also contributed to the growth of local businesses, such as Great Lakes Cheese Company and Marathon Cheese Corporation, Xiong said.

Wausau has one of the largest Hmong American populations in Wisconsin, alongside Milwaukee, La Crosse, Green Bay, Sheboygan, Madison, Eau Claire and others, according to the Hmong American Center.

Wisconsin’s Hmong communities have paid millions of dollars in payroll taxes, Xiong said. Xiong referenced to a report from Marquette University in Milwaukee and said that the Hmong median income surpassed the statewide average household median income.

This is a “true testament of the Hmong community’s tenacity to continue to do better,” Xiong said.

“That shows that the Hmong community, despite the fact that they’ve only been here for 45 years — which is not very long — they were able to continue working on themselves and continue to become contributors to the states here,” Xiong said.

Xiong said that Hmong communities still face many challenges, including fears of lost language and culture.

“The most important component that many of our elders and our veterans are afraid of, is basically loss of language, culture, and also their own history,” Xiong said.

He said the Hmong elders worry that younger generations will not remember the efforts and sacrifices of their veterans.

A need for mental health resources

Many of the Hmong people today also experience generational trauma, Xiong said, and there is a need for greater access to mental health resources.

Xiong said Hmong veterans continue to struggle with mental health issues such as PTSD, but there is a lack of mental health care services available that have the cultural prioritization they need.

Rep. Francesca Hong, who was the first Asian American elected to the Wisconsin Legislature, also said that it is important for Hmong communities to have greater access to “culturally responsive” and appropriate mental health resources.

It is necessary to ensure “that Hmong elders — including our Hmong veterans — don’t feel isolated,” Hong said, and that “they have access to farming, and practices and cultures that remind them, and make them feel as though they can make Wisconsin more their home.”

“I think having more community programs that bring together Hmong elders and Hmong youth, specifically queer youth, to kind of broaden how we can better make inclusive communities, I think that’s really important,” Hong said.

Hong said there must be greater efforts to ensure Wisconsin’s Hmong organizations are properly funded, “because it’s the community that knows best how to serve their communities.”

Hong calls for more action in Congress

Hong said that while the Congressional Gold Medal is a “tremendous honor” for Hmong veterans, veterans have other concerns that must be addressed.

“I think the elder (Hmong) populations that I speak with in Wisconsin, when I speak to their communities, there’s a lot of concern around mental health resources, easier access to getting veteran status on driver’s licenses, and feeling as though that they are more in the community,” Hong said.

Hong said that when members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation challenge diversity, equity and inclusion programs, as well as measures to tackle anti-Asian hate, “that impacts our Hmong communities directly.”

While Hong did not mention any specific examples of Wisconsin members of Congress challenging measures to combat anti-Asian hate, Tiffany was the only U.S. representative from Wisconsin to vote against the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act in 2021. The law aimed to address the rise in violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic.

Hong said it is important for Wisconsin’s elected officials to recognize “that our communities deserve to be in places where diversity is celebrated and not weaponized.”

“I think there is a lot more they can do to be champions of diversity, and recognizing that we should be radically welcoming of our Hmong communities regardless of veteran status or not,” Hong said.

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Samantha Dietel
Samantha Dietel

Samantha Dietel is a reporter intern in Washington, D.C. She is pursuing a degree in journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She has previously covered the Missouri legislature in Jefferson City as a reporter for the Columbia Missourian.

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