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Burying the Dead: Veterans’ Widows Struggle in a Foreign Land

This was written in 2008, when I was a Yuchengco media fellow at the University of San Francisco’s Center for the Pacific Rim. It’s part of a series I did on the struggle of the widows of Filipino soldiers who died fighting for their rightful benefits as U.S. veterans. Today I found this article.  Sad, just sad.

San Francisco – Pilar dela Cruz is 68 years old and worried about her taxes next year.

“I just read in a newspaper that they want to increase taxes because of the crisis,” she says one afternoon after arriving home from her morning shift.

Despite her own age and knee problem, dela Cruz, the widow of a Filipino veteran, is still working eight hours a day, five days a week, as a care provider for the elderly. Her husband Ricardo, a former guerilla fighter who has received no recognition or financial compensation for his service in the U.S. military during World War II, left her with nothing when he died in 2001.

“I plan to work until I’m 70, so I can get full retirement benefits,” she says. A retirement fund is the only thing she is counting on right now to support her in her twilight years.

The equity that she and her husband had been fighting for since they and thousands of other veterans descended here in the 1990s now seems nothing but a far-fetched dream to this widow, who lives alone in a subsidized housing unit in San Francisco.

“I’ve been a member of various veterans groups. I have complete documentation and proof of my husband’s service in one attaché case here, but we’ve gotten nothing. This pension – it’s a shot at the moon,” she says in a tone that’s both resigned and bitter.

Hopes rose high among Filipino veterans and their families this year after the Senate, in an unprecedented move, voted 96-1 in April to pass S. 1315 or the Veterans’ Benefits Enhancement Act granting monthly pension to surviving veterans: $900 for those living here, $300-$375 for those in the Philippines, and $200 for widows.

Five months later, the House of Representatives unanimously passed its counterpart S. 1315 sans the provision giving monthly pension to Filipino soldiers of World War II. Instead, the House, voting 392-23 on Sept. 23, passed H.R. 6897, the Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2008 giving a one-time payment of $15,000 to veterans residing here and $9,000 to those in the Philippines, without anything for widows.

Until the last minute, Philippine officials and lobbyists in Washington, banking on the “political strategy” of the sponsors of veterans’ bills in Congress, were optimistic that both chambers would call a conference committee to reconcile the two versions of the preferred S. 1315, and finally reward decades of fighting for equity.

But as legislators dropped everything for marathon sessions aimed at salvaging a rapidly plummeting economy, and everyone became wary of any further spending, Congress adjourned on Oct. 3 without another look at the bills for Filipino veterans.

“For all intent and purposes, they are all dead,” Maj. Gen. Delfin Lorenzana, head of the Philippine embassy’s Veterans’ Affairs Office in Washington D.C., said of the two bills for Filipino veterans.

Five years

It was the farthest that any bill providing for pension to Filipino veterans and their widows had gone, but in the end, they became casualties of the economic turmoil.

“We have no choice but to give up and train our eyes for next year with the hope that the U.S. Congress composition will suit our purpose,” Lorenzana said in an interview after Congress adjourned.

The need for equity, particularly one that includes compensation for widows, is becoming more and more urgent as even veterans give their generation a lifespan of only about five more years. The youngest veterans are now in their 80’s.

“Just counting our days,” is what Filemon Mordeno, 87, says when you ask him how he is doing.

“The veterans are old and disabled,” adds the former radio officer who transmitted coded messages to U.S. troops in Mindanao during the war.

The U.S. Army placed the number of Filipinos who fought in World War II at 250,000, representing the Commonwealth Army and Philippine Scouts. These were the men who responded to then President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call to fight under the U.S. flag as American nationals.

However, a year after winning the war, the U.S. Congress passed the Rescission Act of 1946 stripping these Filipino soldiers – except those with proven service-connected disability – of veterans’ benefits, the only one of 66 U.S. allies to be deprived of rightful benefits for military service.

According to Lorenzana, when he was appointed head of the Veterans’ Affairs Office in 2002, there were still around 60,000 surviving veterans here and in the Philippines. Now, he said, the estimate is 33,000.

The last official U.S. government statistics on Filipino veterans was released in 2000, when then President Bill Clinton ordered a study of the services and benefits for Filipino veterans.

That study placed the Filipino veteran population at 59,899, of which 54,727 were not receiving any compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It estimated that by 2010, the total number of Filipino veterans would drop to 20,000 or a third of the count.

But lawmakers who sponsored the equity bills in the last Congress already have an even lower count – 18,000 as of this year, about 6,000 of whom are living in the United States.

“We don’t get any privileges. We have lost our spouses; the government should give us what is due our husbands. How can we survive?” asks 85-year-old Quintina Pullan, who has been a widow for two years now.

When doctors told her in February 2006 that her husband, who fought in the Visayas during the war, did not have long to live, Pullan emptied their savings to buy tickets back to the Philippines. She wanted their children to see their father before he died, so the Pullans, oxygen on hand, braved the 13-hour flight back to Manila. Mr. Pullan died six days after they arrived.

Desperate widows

“My original plan was to bring him home, return here to fix our things and then go back to the Philippines for good. But that has changed. Two of my children said they want to work in America,” she says.

Now back in San Francisco, Pullan shares a dingy 300-square-foot studio in Mint Hall and Mall on Mission Street with another veteran couple. They had been roommates back in Natoma Street even when Mr. Pullan was alive, but when the rent jacked up, they had to move. Now, the widow pays $270 for her side of the room, which is separated only by boxes of food and clothes from the other couple’s living space.

To make ends meet, she goes to the Veterans Equity Center on Thursdays to get food boxes with vegetables, and buys from the farmers’ market in Civic Center other ingredients she might need to cook familiar Filipino dishes.

When she applied to get her two unmarried daughters here, Pullan was told that she would not qualify as a sponsor because she had no income to support them. Unlike dela Cruz, Pullan is unable to work and relies solely on the $870 supplemental security income (SSI) California gives its senior citizens every month, about $120 more than what she used to get when her husband Dodong was alive.

“I don’t know how much longer I can wait for the petition to progress. I am old,” she says.  At one point, she asks the photojournalist during this interview if he could issue an affidavit of support for her children so her petition can be approved.

“Out of desperation, they ask for affidavits from just anybody. It’s a pity, but those receiving SSI are considered public charge and their petitions for their children to join them here are almost always denied,” said Luisa Antonio, director of the Veterans Equity Center (VEC), the only federally registered non-profit group in the country giving direct services to Filipino veterans and their families.

Antonio said many veterans’ widows are in the same predicament as Pullan’s: Their husbands get them here; a few years later, the veterans get sick and die, leaving their wives alone to fend for themselves. The veterans’ petitions for their children to join them in the United States then become moot with their death, and so the widows have to file a new petition, which will take over a decade to process.

Ninety percent of the legal case work done by the VEC for veterans involve immigration issues, either concerning the veterans’ or their wives’ citizenship, or their petition for their children to join them.

Some come to the center saying their doctors had offered to issue an affidavit of support for their children, but when the VEC checks with the doctors, it turns out that the doctors merely offered a letter detailing the widow’s medical condition to support their visa application for their children.

Humanitarian grounds

Others think, wrongly, that the lawyer they paid will give the affidavit.

“Since we started the legal clinic, we’ve always told them to file a petition for their children even while their husbands are still alive, so that even when the veteran dies, the petition for their children does not die with them,” Antonio said.

Dela Cruz did exactly this. When her husband first became sick in 1995, she filed a separate petition for their son, but until now, it has yet to progress.

Another widow, Lolita Ramos, however, did not learn this early enough. Ramos’s husband Pastor sponsored her child from her first marriage as early as 1989. The petition was approved, but Pastor died in 1996, before the process was completed, and Ramos had to a file a new petition for her son in 1997. She has been waiting 11 years for the approval of her petition.

Aware of their desperate situation, some lawyers take advantage of these widows, Antonio said, charging them as much as $10,000 with a promise that they could get their children here on humanitarian considerations.

“If that were the case, then every widow would have their children here on humanitarian grounds. But in my ten years here, I have not seen one case when a visa was given to a Filipino widow’s children on humanitarian consideration,” Antonio said.

The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act stipulates an annual limit of 226,000 visas for family-sponsored preference, and 140,000 for employment-based preference. The per-country limit for visa issuance is set at seven percent of the total annual family-sponsored and employment-based preference limits.

Most of the veterans and widows’ applications are for their married sons and daughters under family-sponsored preferences, which is limited to 23,400 visas in a year. As of November, the applications being processed under that category are those filed as of May 8, 1991.

This means it is unlikely that the petitions filed by veterans or their widows for their children are included here as most of them became citizens only after former president George H. W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which included naturalization for Filipino war veterans.

“That’s why the S. 1315 would have been better because after that, we can push for the family reunification bill,” says Ramos, who lives in a city housing unit on Pine Street.

Meanwhile, as their petitions for their children drag on and hopes for a legislated pension for veterans’ widows remain dim, the women have come to rely on each other for companionship and hope.

Care providers

Rafaela Santiago, 85, lives next door to dela Cruz on the fourth floor of the Woolf House on Howard Street. Often, she spends her afternoons in dela Cruz’s unit, watching Filipino programs on cable TV. When dela Cruz is home, they would share meals and stories, mostly about their pet peeves taking care of “old people.”

Santiago, herself a veteran’s widow, had been a care provider for the elderly until she was 78. She, too, had wanted to secure her retirement benefits but her working stint was cut short in 2001, when she suffered a lumbar fracture from lifting a client that had fallen on a heating system.

It is not uncommon for widows to work as care providers, according to the VEC, especially if they are not yet citizens and could not receive SSI. The Welfare Reform Act signed by former president Bill Clinton in 1996 barred non-citizens from receiving federal benefits like SSI, forcing some widows who were not yet citizens when their husbands died to look for jobs.

Santiago’s husband Leopoldo was still alive, though suffering from emphysema, when she decided to work. Because she was a live-in caregiver, she had to leave her husband alone in their studio, coming home only on weekends to check on him, stock on food in the refrigerator and clean the house.

“He was hoping they could get equity,” she says.

“He was offended that the Filipino veterans were not recognized. If only they (legislators) had seen the war, they would believe us. They think we’re just dipping into the coffers now. My husband used to have nightmares because he still sees images of the war,” says Santiago, who had joined her husband, a lieutenant with the USAFIP, on assignment in northern Luzon from 1942 to 1945.

When her husband’s situation deteriorated, they decided to take him home to the Philippines, where he died in 2004.

 

Food rations

Placer Benaning, 81, also buried a husband in Manila 14 years ago. When Pedro died, Benaning lost not only her spouse but her partner in music.

The couple used to play in San Francisco hospitals – she the piano, he the guitar – once a month since 1987, until Pedro, a member of the Disabled American Veterans, fell ill. He had developed pulmonary tuberculosis during the war and was undergoing treatment before he came here.

Benaning could have stayed with any of her 11 children after her husband’s death, but she chose to return to the United States after the burial because she missed the company of the women in her group, the Filipino Tenants Association of Mendelson.

“I will eventually go home for good, but right now, I am enjoying being part of the association,” she says.

She has enjoyed playing the piano again, particularly during the monthly gatherings of the group to celebrate birthdays. They cook and sing and spend holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas together as a family – the only family most of the Filipino widows here have.

Sometimes, in fact, fellow widows are more compassionate than the real families they left back in the Philippines.

Ramos recalls how she took the photo of one widow scrubbing the toilets and sent the photo to that widow’s child in the Philippines to show how hard her mother’s life is here. The widow, says Ramos, confessed that she could not pay back her loans because she had to support her child’s family in the Philippines.

“Many of them could not go home to the Philippines because they’re so poor. Their children are still depending on them while they themselves just eat the food rations here,” Ramos says.

Another reason widows do not go back home for good is the lack of welfare support for the elderly in the Philippines, a country where 27 percent of the population are living on less than $1.35 a day according to the latest study by the Asian Development Bank.

“Here, we receive care as seniors, although it could be better with the pension,” says Santiago, who has undergone three surgeries in the past couple of years, all at no cost. This was something she could not have had in the Philippines.

“There are many sources of food here. If you are industrious enough, if you are able and willing to walk from place to place, you will survive,” says Ramos, who has a list of churches and senior centers that offer free meals daily.

Hope floats

Florentina delos Santos, 73, is certainly one that goes around – but not to foray for food. She is the coordinator of a group at the Woolf House called NANAY (National Alliance to Nurture the Aged and the Youth).  In Filipino, the word “nanay” means “mother,” and it is a role delos Santos takes to heart.

This widow, who lost her husband to cancer in 2006, takes food to people. When she learned that the veteran couple staying a few doors from her flat was sick, she immediately brought them chicken soup and called on other members of NANAY to take turns in bringing the couple meals.

“That’s how we are here,” she says. “We help each other. If you have something to give, you give.”

Delos Santos likes to host seniors’ get-togethers as well, regaling friends with her singing and stories. As early as now, she is preparing for their Christmas party.

“I never dreamed of going to America,” she tells us while cleaning up after one of NANAY’s parties. But her husband, a guerilla fighter in Laguna, was one of the veterans who flew here for his citizenship in 1995; their son followed in 1997; and in 1999, she finally joined them.

“I’m happy here. The only sad thing for me is that my husband died without receiving a single cent,” she says.

She pauses a moment and recalls how a columnist once asked her when her husband was still alive, if she was still hoping that the veterans and their families would ever get the equity that has been deprived them year after year for 62 years.

“Of course, I still have hope. Because we are still alive. Only the dead have no hope,” she told him then, as she tells me now.

“If we get something, then ‘thank you Lord.’ If not…” she trails off, her jolly countenance masked by uncertainty for a fleeting moment.

Dela Cruz, meanwhile, knows exactly what she has to do: “I will work for as long as I can,” she says, simply.

After all, of the two inevitable things in life, tax would still be the lesser of this widow’s concerns. ##

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