BALDONADO: There are 10 veterans who die a day, because of their old age. Like myself, I’m 85 years old already. My comrade is 93. We had a meeting the other day and they said: we are losing our people around.
SOMOSOT: That was Regalado Baldonado, Commissioner for Veteran Affairs of the City and County of San Francisco. Filipino and Filipino-American veterans have been repeatedly denied recognition and refused their right to receive full military benefits since WWII ended 65 years ago. Now, they are lobbying for the United States Congress to pass House Resolution 210, or the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act, which will bring them the acknowledgment of service that they have long been waiting for.
HR 210 intends to repeal the 1946 Rescission Act, which American President Truman issued at the end of WWII to strip these veterans of all military benefits they were promised at the start of the war. The government’s official rationale was that they had fought for the Philippines and not for America, according to Filipino-American documentary filmmaker Sonny Izon.
IZON: To be fair to Truman, he was between a rock and a hard place. He was trying to rebuild a post-war nation. In fact when he issued the Rescission Act, he signed it, but he did so reluctantly in his own record.
SOMOSOT: HR 210 aims to provide them with monthly pensions for the remainder of their lives and include their families as immediate beneficiaries – much like all other American veterans. It also intends to recognize the service of those whose names are not officially documented in the U.S. military archives.
BALDONADO: We always loved both America and the Philippines. And so after the call of President Roosevelt, we just went to war with them.
SOMOSOT: In 1942, Baldonado, like many others, became a guerrilla fighter for the U.S. army stationed in the Philippines. Although born in the Philippines, Baldonado and his fellow guerrillas were considered American citizens because the Philippines was an American colony during WWII. They all became citizens of the Philippines after gaining independence from America after the war. Although some like Baldonado later applied for and became American citizens again.
BALDONADO: We fought, we served and we sacrificed and win the war – which is not our war. It was a war of America. Many Filipinos were killed in protecting American lives. The guerrillas and the Filipino soldiers were able to save billions of dollars for America during that time.
SOMOSOT: Baldonado also mentions that out of the 66 nations who helped America during World War II, only the Philippines was not given full military benefits for its veterans. Part of the government’s rationale was economic: there were 250,000 Filipino veterans, which would amount to 21 billion dollars in benefits, says Arturo Garcia, National Coordinator for the Los Angeles-based organization Justice for Filipino American Veterans, or JFAV.
But because the Philippines was an American colony then, veterans still expected to receive benefits as American – not Filipino – citizens.
BALDONADO: They have been discriminating the Filipinos. Fighting with them, side by side, and so many thousands of Filipinos were killed because of protecting American lives! And now they say we are second-class citizens, second- class veterans?
SOMOSOT: Besides Filipino soldiers like Baldonado, Filipino-Americans residing in mainland U.S. were also recruited to fight alongside other American soldiers to help ease the costly war effort burdening the government. In his 2002 documentary An Untold Triumph, Izon explains that these Filipino-American volunteers in the U.S. Army originated from Hawaii, California and other American states, but went back to the Philippines as an espionage-trained unit.
IZON: Part of the rationale was: because they looked like Filipinos, because they are Filipinos. Many of them could still speak the language of the areas they came from. They could infiltrate the Philippines as the spy units for MacArthur.
SOMOSOT: In 2009, the U.S. government gave lump sums of $15,000 to Filipino-American veterans, and $9,000 to Filipino veterans. But only 42% of the total 41,000 applicants were found eligible for the lump sum, according to JFAV. The rest could not be determined eligible due to the absence of the Missouri List, which authenticated the military service of all U.S. army personnel from 1912 – 1960. The list was destroyed in a fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center, or the NPRC, in Missouri. Since then, the NPRC has started collecting auxiliary records with basic service information to verify undocumented veterans.
But even those who received the lump sums did not get sufficient compensation. They also had to surrender their right to collect future benefits.
BALDONADO: The HR 210 will relieve the veterans to receive everything – from the monthly pension of some $1500, plus the benefits of spouses and windows, you know. Complete. As an American veteran.
SOMOSOT: Despite Baldonado’s optimism, Izon acknowledges that veterans will have to confront the public’s lack of knowledge about the issue.
IZON: American history for the most part has been uni-dimensional and in some cases whitewashed as, “We’re always the good guys; we’re always on the side of right.” Anytime we do something, wherever we are in the world, it’s because we’re trying to preserve democracy. That’s always been the party line of the government. In many cases, it has been true. In some other more inconvenient cases, it’s just been the opposite.
SOMOSOT: Izon claims that even the educated few still don’t realize the magnitude of the government’s neglect towards the veterans.
IZON: Those that even know about it when you bring up veterans equity, then they just say, “Well, we took care of that in 2009.” They’re still not really aware of what the implications are of, what does $15,000 cover. What about the past 65 years?
SOMOSOT: According to Garcia, there are already 91 out of the 435 congressmen in total who already co-sponsor HR 210. He says that at least 318 co-sponsors are needed to guarantee the bill’s passage. Former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul of Texas have also rallied their support.
Garcia and Baldonado agree that they must diversify their strategy beyond mere lobbying to ensure that veterans receive the full-fledged attention and recognition they deserve from the government.
GARCIA: We filed a case against the Department of Veteran Affairs for denying the survivors. Our tactic is two-pronged: one is lobbying and the other is through a court case. We are talking to some senators so they can file a companion bill with HR 210. We need a companion bill in the Senate. It will be easier to talk to the Veterans Committee in the Senate, and the House Veterans Committee.
SOMOSOT: If HR 210 does pass, Baldonado points out that there is only so much time left for veterans to enjoy the benefits. And only so few of them are still alive today – 10,000, compared to 50,000 10 years ago.
BALDONADO: I don’t know what this government is going to do with us. Maybe they wanted us to die first before giving us the benefits. I don’t know. We are all diminishing; we are all dying.
SOMOSOT: But Garcia notes that the dwindling numbers of veterans are no longer the major concern here.
GARCIA: It’s not only the veterans that America is denying the right; it is the Filipino-American community that the United States is crumpling upon. So even if all the veterans die, even if all the widows die already, the younger generation will always remember what the United States did to our widows, to our veterans, and to our community.
SOMOSOT: It is now up to the younger generation to make sure that the fight for Filipino veteran equity and recognition does not fade into oblivion. Educating the youth about this issue appears to be the next chapter in this 65-year long saga. The story might then change course with some fresh new thinking and youthful passion. For War News Radio, I’m Maki Somosot.