Thousands of Korean-American Vietnam veterans could receive VA health care under this bill

Abbie Bennett
January 22, 2020 - 4:24 pm

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Korean Americans who fought as U.S. allies in the Vietnam War don't qualify for health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A new bill from Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., would change that.

About 3,000 Korean Americans, who are naturalized citizens, served as U.S. wartime allies in Vietnam, but those veterans do not have access to VA health care, unlike U.S. European allies of World War I and World War II. 

The Korean American Vietnam Allies Long Overdue for Relief (VALOR) Act would amend title 38 of U.S. code to treat troops who served in Vietnam as a member of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces as veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces for purposes of granting them access to VA health care. That change would entitle those veterans to hospital and home care and other medical services. 

“Korean American Vietnam veterans may have served under a different flag during the Vietnam War, but they served with the same duty, honor, and valor as our United States service members," Cisneros, member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told Connecting Vets. "I’ve heard from many of my Korean American Vietnam Veteran constituents of the need for change, and today, we’re taking the first step in making that happen ... Korean American Vietnam Veterans have always had our backs, now it’s time for us to have theirs.”

The Korean-American veterans experienced similar hardships and injuries while serving alongside U.S. service members, including exposure to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder and other injuries resulting in disability. But though they became naturalized American citizens, they were never recognized as U.S. veterans.

Those same veterans are considered foreign nationals by South Korea, limiting their benefits to a $250 monthly stipend and burial in a South Korean national cemetery at most. They also are only able to apply and restore their Korean nationality for double citizenship at 65, when they are granted some additional discounts when renting South Korean apartments and can possibly access care at Korean VA hospitals. 

More than 325,500 Korean service members served in Vietnam from 1964-73 -- the largest group of allied troops serving with Americans in Vietnam other than the South Vietnamese soldiers themselves, according to the Korean American Vietnam Veterans of America.

Of those, about 4,407 were killed and 17,606 were injured, "many in defense of United States friends and allies," according to KAVVA, one of several veteran service organizations supporting the legislation. 

Cisneros said veterans have been fighting for VA benefits for years, and groups approached him for help. He said the hurdle has always been finances.

"The question is always 'How much is it going to cost?' and then it doesn't go anywhere," he said. "They always look at the cost and the first thing they say is always going to be no."

But 3,000 is not a "significant number" when their service to the nation is considered, he said. 

"Suffering significant injuries from service, it’s unacceptable that nearly 3,000 of these patriots and United States citizens are unable to access healthcare from the VA,” said Cisneros, whose father is also a Vietnam veteran. "We have to make sure we take care of them. It's never too late."

Korean veterans of the Vietnam War were recognized for their service by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., in 2013. 

Troops from the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Canada and New Zealand also served alongside Americans in the war. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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