George Clark, president of Save the Montagnard People, speaks at the American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee, Wis. Photo by Tom Strattman

Montagnards honor Legion for support

Indigenous Montagnards who fought alongside U.S. troops in the Vietnam War - and now fight for their human rights in Southeast Asia - presented The American Legion a special award Thursday morning at the organization's 92nd National Convention in Milwaukee. Soon afterward, the National Convention passed a resolution supporting U.S. policy and congressional action to improve human rights and freedom for those Montagnards who still live in the central highlands of Vietnam.

"What you all did for us in March - with your YouTube and your letters - the tribal council voted The American Legion to be the 2010 recipients of the Freedom Fighter Award. The Legion is the first service-oriented group to help us, out of all the others." said George Clark, president of Save the Montagnard People (STMP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the tribal culture of Vietnam's central highlands that saw continued fighting long into the 1990s after American forces left in 1975.

Clark spoke to Legionnaires gathered at the 50th Annual Washington Conference last March. That presentation and coverage of it in Legion media raised enough awareness of the Montagnard plight that congressional offices soon contacted Clark. The American Legion's Burn Pit blog site later covered the story and posted video on YouTube, which drew thousands of views and helped STMP raise money.

Speaking before thousands of his fellow Vietnam War veterans in Milwaukee, Clark said the group is not looking for funds so much as it is seeking support for the passage of H.R. 1969 and S. 1159, bills introduced in 2009 that would restrict U.S. foreign aid to Vietnam until the government there proves it is not violating the human rights of Montagnards. Clark said 139 Montagnards are now languishing in a U.N. refugee camp while thousands of others in Vietnam face religious persecution, property seizure and ethnic cleansing.

The American Legion National Convention passed Resolution 227 Thursday morning urging Congress to take necessary measures to open communication lines by preventing jamming of Radio Free Asia by the Vietnamese government, ensure that educational and cultural exchange programs with Vietnam "promote progress toward freedom and democracy" and establish "a U.S. policy that will offer refugee resettlement to Vietnam nationals, including members of the Montagnard ethnic minority groups" who have been denied the ability to leave Vietnam "for reasons of administrative error, to include inaccurate language translation or certain circumstances beyond their control."

About 8,000 Montagnards have made their way to the United States over the last decade. STMP has assisted them, establishing the nation's largest community of Montagnards in central North Carolina, where many Vietnam veterans, particularly those who served in the U.S. Special Forces, are available to help them. Veterans in that area have worked together and obtained donated land and materials to construct longhouses and assist them with job and education pursuit. Clark said 128 Montagnards are now serving in the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Clark told the National Convention that those who have resettled in the United States worry greatly about their families in the central highlands of Vietnam. He said most of them have no intention of leaving their traditional homelands, but they need protection and open lines of communication.

"These people have a right to live, like the rest of us do," said Clark, a former Green Beret who led Montagnard units during the Vietnam War.

To learn more about the Montagnards, visit Coverage from last spring's Memorial Day Montagnard Picnic can be found on the Legion's Burn Pit blog site.