Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, cited the former Laotian army general’s martial assistance to the United States during the Vietnam War in asking for the Arlington burial waiver. Vang Pao requires a waiver because he didn’t directly serve in the U.S. military.
“Major General Vang Pao and the Royal Lao Army served in support of the United States with passion, dedication and honor,” Costa stated in identical letters to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, and several other House members joined Costa in the waiver request.
Costa initiated the Arlington burial waiver request after meeting in Fresno on Monday with Charlie Waters, a Korean War veteran who has been working closely with Vang Pao’s family.
Waters said he conveyed to Costa the family’s wishes that Vang Pao find a place at Arlington. Costa agreed to ask, and indicated the likelihood that further honors will be paid on the House floor or through the Congressional Record.
“Not only has this decorated hero been a respected leader in the Hmong community, he’s been an advocate for human rights and U.S.-Lao relations during his time in the United States,” the congressional letter states.
Central Intelligence Agency officers recruited Vang Pao in or about 1961 to assist in the fight against North Vietnam. He fought the often-covert war until the communists took over Laos in 1975.
“We were all really impressed with (Vang Pao),” former CIA officer Bill Lair said in an oral history taken by Texas Tech University. “He was actually a field commander. He was really good at it, at controlling his people and getting the most out of them, planning, (and) giving his own method of operating … he did very well.”
Vang Pao died Thursday in Clovis at age 81.
Exemptions for burial at Arlington may be granted by either the secretary of defense or the secretary of veterans affairs. Recently, for instance, the Obama administration authorized the ground burial at Arlington of Martin Ginsburg, a former Georgetown University tax law professor who was married to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
A congressional request is no guarantee of success, as Arlington burial waivers have at times incited controversy. Only 196 Arlington burial waivers were granted between 1967 and 1997, a General Accounting Office study found. During the same period, at least 144 burial waiver requests were denied.
The 1998 GAO study, the most recent of its kind, was conducted following controversy over an Arlington burial granted to a prominent Clinton administration campaign contributor who turned out to have lied about World War II Merchant Marine service.
Arlington already contains at least one reminder of Hmong service, a modest plaque set on a piece of granite and identified as the Lao Veterans Memorial Monument. On occasion, surviving Hmong veterans and their family members have gathered for wreath-laying ceremonies at the unobtrusive monument.
Ground burial, also called interment, is generally considered the most popular option at Arlington. Slightly looser rules govern inurnment in Arlington’s above-ground Columbarium. Inurnment, for instance, is available for those who served in the U.S. Public Health Service or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or for U.S. citizens who served in foreign militaries allied with the United States.
Decisions on waiving burial eligibility requirements often are made within 48 hours of the request, according to the GAO, which is now called the Government Accountability Office. The possibility of political influence exists, investigators suggest.
More than 300,000 people are currently interred or inurned at Arlington. The cemetery is expected to reach capacity in 2060, if the current rate of 28 burials a day is maintained.