A Vietnamese activist group for disabled veterans has been lobbing American legislators to restart a program that would allow former South Vietnamese soldiers to resettle in the U.S. to escape poverty and discrimination they face at home for their participation in a war than ended four decades ago.
Truc Ho and Hanh Nhon, co-founders of the Association for Disabled Veterans and Widows’ Relief, have met with American legislators for more than a year to convince them to take action so that 500 disabled military officers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would be eligible to immigrate to the U.S. under existing law.
When the Vietnam War (1955-1975) ended with the fall of Saigon, present-day Ho Chi Minh City, to the communist North Vietnamese Army, thousands of former ARVN officers were sent to reeducation camps because they had collaborated with the Americans. Some disabled veterans, however, were not sent to the centers.
A few years later, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese war refugees started immigrating to the U.S. and other countries under the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) created in 1979 under the auspices of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). More than 458,000 Vietnamese citizens were resettled in the U.S. under the ODP between 1980 and 1997.
The program’s Humanitarian Operation (HO) category allowed certain former Vietnamese soldiers who were forced into reeducations camps by the communist government that came in to power after the war to resettle in the U.S.
But former military servicemen and women with disabilities who were not interned in the reeducation camps were not considered eligible for U.S. relocation under the HO category.
Ho and Nhon’s organization created a list of 500 disabled military officers still living in Vietnam who supported the Americans during the war and would be eligible to move to the U.S. under the program if it were extended.
The two have met with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who played an instrumental part in implementing the HO, Janet Nguyen, a Republican who serves in the California State Senate, and U.S. Congressmen Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) to get their support for the proposal.
Ho said he had met twice with McCain, an American POW during the Vietnam War, and would try to meet with him again during the upcoming election season.
The 79-year-old senator announced last April that he would run for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate in the 2016 elections.
“The initial idea was to utilize the existing HO,” Ho said. “We just want to expand the HO because we already have the list.”
The issue first came to the attention of Alan Lowenthal during a trip to Vietnam in November 2014, when he visited the offices of the Association for Disabled Veterans and Widows’ Relief and Saigon Broadcasting Television Network (SBTV), which is run by Ho, who is a Vietnamese-American musician-turned-producer.
After a year of working on the matter, Lowenthal, Royce, and Congressmen Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) — all of whom represent districts with significant Vietnamese-American constituents — submitted a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last Dec. 17 to consider using existing law to resettle the 500 disabled Vietnamese military officers in the U.S.
“These disabled officers and their families remaining in Vietnam disproportionately live in poverty, have health issues which are inadequately addressed, and face discrimination based on their past service,” the letter said.
“We respectfully request an assessment of the current plight of these individuals as well as options for honoring and protecting all disabled Vietnamese veterans that fought alongside our American soldiers in the Vietnam War, including if their resettlement in the United States is possible under existing law,” it said.
Although the ODP closed in 1994, the U.S. government opened a limited process nine years later to receive new applications from Vietnamese citizens who might have been eligible under one of three of the program’s categories, including the HO, for consideration for resettlement in the U.S.
This included Vietnamese applicants who had spent time in reeducation camps as a result of their close association with U.S. agencies or organizations prior to the end of the war, as well as their widows or widowers.
Ho and Nhon are hoping that the same can be done again first for the 500 disabled Vietnamese military officers still in Vietnam, then for other disabled soldiers.
“Now we have to take care of that limited number using the existing HO instead of initiating a whole new program,” Nhon said. “We have asked for the disabled officers first, then we will consider the next step.”
About 15,000 Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) soldiers are still in the Southeast Asian country, Association for Disabled Veterans and Widows’ Relief.
“We do not discriminate against other veterans who were soldiers and had no rankings,” she said. “We have to utilize the existing HO that the government of the U.S. had already approved. That program was used for officers with rank, not for other soldiers.”
In the meantime, Lowenthal said he expects a reply from the State Department this month or in February.
“Depending upon that assessment, we will then figure out what the next appropriate step would be,” he said.
But if the State Department turns down the request, the lawmakers who drafted the letter will examine other alternatives, he said.
“If [the State Department] says no, we will have to examine what our legislative approaches might be,” Lowenthal said.
“That’s a much longer process, and we’re hoping that’s not needed,” he said.
But for some disabled Vietnamese veterans the wait may have already been too long.
A former lieutenant who sustained injuries during the Vietnam War that paralyzed both his legs said he and others would have liked to have seen the effort made years ago.
“Not only me, but anybody who heard this news was very happy, but our happiness is not complete because this comes a little late for us old people,” the man, who declined to be named, told RFA. “If only this had come about 10 years ago. Now we are all old and about to die.”
Reported by Cat Linh and Hoa Ai for RFA’s Vietnam Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.