Korean immigrants who fought with U.S. in Vietnam would get healthcare under new bill

February 4, 2020
In The News

Jason Hong was just 23 when he left his home in South Korea to join some 325,000 Korean soldiers who would fight as allies alongside American troops throughout the Vietnam War.

By the time Hong and other members of his Blue Dragon infantry marine division left the battlefield, in 1969, his hearing was damaged by two years of listening to bombs explode a heartbeat away. And those hearing problems have only worsened now that Hong is a 75-year-old American citizen living in Cerritos.

Half a century later, Hong could get help with the treatments and pricey hearing devices he needs if a new federal bill championed by congress members from Southern California becomes law. U.S. House Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Yorba Linda, on Thursday introduced his Korean American Vietnam Allies Long Overdue for Relief Act, also called the Korean American VALOR Act.

The bill would give the estimated 3,000 Korean immigrants who fought in the Vietnam War and have become naturalized U.S. citizens access to the same medical care that other American veterans receive through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We need to do right by them,” Cisneros said Thursday, Jan. 23, as he introduced the bill during a press conference at the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles.

Cisneros is a U.S. Navy veteran and the son of an Army veteran. He told the crowd of several dozen Korean Americans — many wearing “Vietnam Veteran” baseball caps — that his father suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and the effects from exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical used by the U.S. military in Vietnam. But, unlike those in the crowd Thursday, Cisneros said his dad has access to VA doctors who specialize in treating both of those difficult conditions.

“I’ve heard from many of my Korean American Vietnam Veteran constituents about the need for change,” said Cisneros, who represents portions of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, a district that includes an estimated 700 Korean-American veterans who could be eligible for coverage under the new bill. “Today, we’re taking the first step in making that happen.”

Koreans were the second largest contingent of foreign soldiers defending South Vietnam, behind only the United States. More than 5,000 Korean soldiers were killed and nearly 11,000 injured during the conflict, according to data kept by the nonprofit organization Korean American Veterans of the Vietnam War.

Still, according to Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, one of six House members co-sponsoring the bill, the U.S. government has yet to officially recognize these veterans for their efforts in Vietnam.

“This is wrong,” Chu said. “Not only because it denies them recognition for their service and sacrifice, but also because it denies them the basic healthcare we provide to other veterans.”

Since these 3,000 veterans are now U.S. citizens, they get limited help from the South Korea government, according to Kim Wan-joong with the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Los Angeles. That includes a monthly veteran stipend of roughly $250 and the right to burial in a South Korean national cemetery. Otherwise, Wan-joong said, they’re on their own in the United States.

“These veterans are caught in a difficult circumstance,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, who is also co-sponsoring the bill.

Yoon Chang, who fought as a Korean ally in the Vietnam War in 1969, said he’s fortunate to have good health as a 72-year-old. But the Anaheim resident said many of his fellow Korean American veterans who now live in Orange County suffer from PTSD, depression and other chronic problems as a direct result of their time in the Vietnam War.

“It’s very costly,” he said through a translator. “And the VA is the best place for care.”

There’s no official estimate yet for how much the Korean American VALOR Act, or HR 5590, would cost to implement. The Congressional Budget Office will calculate that figure as the bill moves through the legislative process, so Cisneros’ office declined to speculate.

But with the government spending an average of around $10,000 per veteran per year for medical care, offering coverage to 3,000 more veterans could add roughly $30 million a year. That’s slightly over 1% to the VA’s $220 billion annual budget.

Cisneros said he knows his bill could open the door for healthcare requests from other allied veterans who’ve become U.S. citizens — such as Filipino American soldiers from the Vietnam War or Saudi Arabian American soldiers from the Gulf War. But he noted that such a move isn’t without precedent. Veterans who fought for the United States’ European allies during World War I and World War II are already granted medical benefits through the VA.

“Korean American Vietnam Veterans have always had our backs,” Cisneros said. “Now it’s time for us to have theirs.”

Hong said the bill has given him hope that he can finally have his hearing issue properly addressed.

One day, hopefully many years from now, Hong said he even dreams of being buried in a U.S. national cemetery.