Korean troops who fought alongside American forces in the Vietnam War and later relocated to the United States would be eligible for Department of Veterans Affairs health benefits under new legislation unveiled by a group of House lawmakers this week.
The measure would affect only about 3,000 individuals who emigrated from South Korea and have already become naturalized U.S. citizens. But supporters say the move is important to show America’s commitment to troops who fought to protect U.S. interests and values, regardless where they were born.
“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 U.S. service members,” said Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif. and sponsor of the measure.
“Suffering significant injuries from service, it’s unacceptable that these patriots and U.S. citizens are unable to access healthcare from the VA … Korean American Vietnam Veterans have always had our backs, now it’s time for us to have theirs.”
Lawmakers backing the proposal said there is precedent for such granting of VA health care to foreign troops. After World War I and World War II, European allies who became American citizens were granted certain U.S. veterans benefits, in recognition of their contributions to American security.
More than 4,400 Korean troops were killed and 17,000 injured fighting alongside U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. Lawmakers noted that many survivors suffer the same illnesses associated with exposure to toxic chemicals such as Agent Orange, but are not eligible to receive VA treatments for those issues.
Additionally, any Korean veterans who have become U.S. citizens are blocked from most South Korea public assistance programs.
Under the measure, the foreign-born veterans would be able to access only VA health care, not other disability or education benefits. Individuals who served between 1962 and 1975 with the Korean military and later became American citizens would be eligible.
Supporters did not release any potential cost estimates for the new plan. No hearings have yet been scheduled on the proposal in the House.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.