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Righting Wrongs 

Filipino-American veterans continue their push for WWII benefits

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

They fought in the bloody battles of Bataan and Corregidor under General MacArthur. They survived a 70-mile death march to Camp O’Donnell prison while some 7,000 of their fellow Filipino and American soldiers died of starvation, dehydration, and bayonet blows promptly meted out to stragglers.

Despite the hardships endured by these Filipino-American veterans of World War II, most have been denied GI benefits, including health care, pensions and education programs; they receive only a flag for burial. If maimed, disabled or killed, the veterans or their families received half of what was given to their American counterparts. Of the 66 nationalities who fought for the Allied forces, the Filipinos were the only ethnicity left out.

A small part of the long-standing injustice was set to end last week, when the Senate was scheduled to consider a compensation bill already approved by the House, 380-6. But the matter was never taken up; it’s supposed to be heard this week.

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The bill addresses only the needs of the most desperate veterans, those who are ailing and want to return to their homeland to be with their families. The bill extends to them Social Security benefits, at a 25 percent reduction.

The bill now before Congress would not affect the ranks of those who are expected to stay in the U.S. due to the disincentives of SSI reduction, loss of Medicaid, and the veterans’ desire to remain with families in America. Veterans’ advocates altered their strategy from pushing for total equity in one law to piecemeal legislation that would restore benefits one by one.

According to Eric Lachica, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based American Coalition for Filipino Veterans Inc. (ACFV) and a veteran’s son, the $380-per-month income "would provide a humanitarian relief for an estimated 7,000 elderly Filipino-American vets who are poor, lonely, and isolated in the U.S., and are financially unable to petition their families to immigrate to the U.S., and therefore want to rejoin them in the Philippines."

The Congressional Budget Office estimated an annual savings of $7 million if 7,000 veterans returned to the Philippines and stopped receiving food stamps and Medicaid payments.

Filipino veterans have been left out of benefits for two reasons: The U.S. government did not want to be financially responsible for the 25,000 surviving Filipino veterans, and the Philippines is no longer under U.S. rule. Only the Regular Philippines Scouts, who were recruited into the U.S. Army between 1902 and 1945, are entitled to all benefits.

Coordinator of the Justice for Filipino American Veterans campaign Arturo Garcia explains, "When the Philippines, previously a U.S. territory, became an independent nation in 1946, the U.S. waived all rights of the Filipino veterans because they were no longer considered U.S. nationals." The Philippines was expected to take care of its own.

According to the Veterans Affairs Department, "Current law recognizes the shared responsibility of the United States and the Philippines for the well-being of these veterans." The VA opposes all equity bills, but it has proposed to increase the disability compensation.

On Veterans Day, some 60 Filipino veterans marched to an empty federal INS building, the site of a solidarity rally attended by youth supporters from California high schools and colleges as well as members of Alyansa ng Komunidad (Community Alliance) and People’s CORE. This was one of several events planned to drum up support for a compensation proposal.

Since the late ’80s, the nation’s Filipino community has lobbied Congress to amend the 1946 law that barred the Filipinos’ eligibility for benefits under the 1944 GI Bill of Rights. The law under fire, the Rescission Act of 1946, declared that the Filipino soldiers’ service "was not deemed active . . . for the purpose of applying for rights, privileges and benefits under any law . . . administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs." Yet, in 1941, FDR conscripted over 200,000 Filipinos to serve in the United States Armed Forces in the Far East under General MacArthur. Both FDR and MacArthur promised the Filipino soldiers (through executive order and official memorandum) that they would receive compensation.

Many veterans first became aware of the law when thousands moved to the U.S. to obtain citizenship through the Immigration Act of 1990. (The act recognized the veterans’ active military service for naturalization, not for benefits.) Seventy-six-year-old former guerrilla fighter Franco Arcebal discovered the injustice after being denied medical attention at a veterans clinic in 1988. An outspoken advocate ever since, Arcebal recently admonished a roomful of Filipino-American UCLA students to know the history of injustice befalling their lolos (grandfathers).

Youth groups have answered with a collection of more than 8,000 signatures endorsing the veterans.

A VA health-care bill, sponsored by Congressmen Bob Filner of San Diego and Benjamin Gilman of New York, that would provide access to VA hospitals in the U.S. and the Philippines is in the pipeline.

Despite hunger strikes staged in MacArthur Park, veterans chaining themselves to the White House fence, and a statement by Harry Truman back in 1946 ("There can be no question but that the Philippine veteran is entitled to benefits bearing a reasonable relation to those received by the American veteran, with whom he fought side by side"), the only "compensation" offered was another flowery statement by President Clinton in 1996 marking October 20 as the day to remember their "extraordinary sacrifices in defense of democracy and liberty."

Aged 70 and over, the veterans are waging a battle against time. Dying in the U.S. at the rate of two to three per day, many of the approximately 6,500 veterans living in L.A. are in failing health, living in shelters or rundown apartments, and receiving SSI and food stamps as their only income. According to Garcia, the denial of benefits "is the greatest form of discrimination inflicted on our community, especially in a country that professes to be democratic and freedom-loving. Quickly entering their twilight years, many will be gone in 10 years."

Encouraged by growing support, Faustino Baclig, a 77-year-old death-march survivor and regional director of ACFV, feels certain that the U.S. government will realize its "mistake" and restore full benefits. "We did not lose hope in Bataan, in Corregidor and during our two years of guerrilla warfare, even when we were ordered to surrender, so we will not lose hope this time."

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