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New U.S. gov’t revives hope for equity of dying Filipino veterans

This is the second pat of my series on the fight for equity of Filipino veterans, written in 2008 when I was a Yuchengco media fellow at the University of San Francisco’s Center for the Pacific Rim. The U.S. government has since approved partial benefits for veterans but this recent story  shows another blow to the seemingly endless struggle for equity.

San Francisco – Some say they are fighting an unwinnable war, and perhaps they are, but they are soldiers – they will continue to fight, if it’s the last thing they do.

By the looks of the Filipino World War II veterans – their faces old, their arms weak, their gaits slow – this struggle for recognition and proper compensation, or what is called “equity” around here, may just take up their last breath.

After a near-victory in the 110th Congress, the veterans and their supporters are back to square one in a legislative battle that has now spanned six decades and reaped only piecemeal laws granting them citizenship, access to health care and welfare – but still not the recognition of military service and the full benefits available to a U.S. veteran.

“Time is not on our side. The veterans are dying, a lot of activists are getting tired; they’ve been fighting for this for 62 yrs. The fact that you have to start all over again… Where do you get the energy to go back and lobby?” asked Jon Melegrito of the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE).

His question was answered by the recent U.S. elections.

The triumph of 255 Democrats in the House of Representatives and 54 in the Senate (as of the latest count in November), and the historic election to the presidency of a senator who has urged his colleagues “to honor the Filipino veterans of World War II by finally enacting the Filipino Veterans Equity Act” and “to provide the benefits and recognition these veterans deserve” has renewed the hopes of Filipino veteran and their advocates.

President-elect Barack Obama, a Democrat, and the Democratic Congress, would be sworn in next month amid high expectations and huge popular support.

“We are more optimistic now because there are more Democrats in the 111th Congress,” Maj. Gen. Delfin Lorenzana, head of the Philippine embassy’s Veterans’ Affairs Office in Washington D.C., said.

Depending on the Democrats

When the Republicans dominated Congress, the veterans’ bills “languished,” said Lorenzana, who was appointed to the Veterans’ Affairs Office in 2002.

“The farthest that any equity bill had gone was being read and voted down in the veterans’ affairs committee… This is the farthest we’ve come,” he said, referring to the passage this year of two veterans’ bills in both chambers.

In the 110th Congress, which had been most favorable to the fight for equity so far, there were 235 Democrats in the House and 49 in the Senate.

This composition paved the way for the 96-1 vote in the Senate last April in favor of S. 1315, which would grant U.S.-based Filipino veterans full pension for their service during World War II, while Philippine-based veterans would get $300 a month or $375 if they have dependents. Widows of veterans will also get $200 monthly.

The passage of the landmark bill brought a wave of excitement in the veteran community, and with a Democratic House led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, nobody had expected an unsuccessful campaign toward the end.

But a week before the close of the 110th Congress, the Lower House passed its version of S. 1315 with the entire provision on Filipino veterans’ benefits scrapped from the bill. Instead, it passed House Resolution 6897, a bill authorizing a one-time payment of $15,000 to U.S.-based veterans and $9,000 to Philippine-based veterans on the condition that they would quit all future claims against the U.S. government.

The new lump-sum bill was not welcomed by veterans, who were concerned that their monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and their Medicare would be halted when they accept the one-time payment. The bill was also unclear about the payment being taxed.

Congress adjourned on Oct. 3 without reconciling the two versions of S. 1315 or coming up with a Senate version of the H.R. 6897, once again frustrating the efforts of the Philippine government and equity advocates, and leaving the veterans with nothing.

 

What happened in Washington D.C.

It was, as lobbyist Eric Lachica of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV) put it, a case of a chess game where the rooks and bishops had been captured, the Filipinos ready to checkmate, but the queen – Speaker Pelosi – could not be had, changing the game’s outcome.

“She has been a big stumbling block,” Lachica said of the San Francisco representative who had earlier pledged to help the Filipino veterans.

After the Senate’s landmark passage of the S. 1315 or the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act, officials and lobbyists began talking to Pelosi to make good on her word to put a House counterpart of the S. 1315 to a floor vote.

“If she had put it to a floor vote in May, we would have had a chance, but she balked,” Lorenzana said of Pelosi.

Not even a meeting with Philippine President Gloria Arroyo in June could convince the Speaker to recommit her support for the S. 1315.

“President Arroyo asked but Pelosi did not commit. She just said ‘We’ll see what we can do.’ Pelosi was not confident to call for a floor vote because she wasn’t confident that we would have the required 290 votes,” Lorenzana said.

As the Speaker stalled, opposition built up, especially from the influential American Legion, the biggest group of U.S. military veterans here, who were concerned that the granting of the Filipino veterans’ benefits would cut into the disability benefits of American veterans.

The S. 1315 passed by the Senate contained what the American veterans considered “offensive language” because it would reverse the Hartness Decision, a court case that effectively granted veterans who are 60 percent disabled to access funds that used to be reserved only for those with 75 percent service-connected disability.

“Because of that, some of our supporters backed out. They were reelectionists, they were scared to lose. The American legion is the biggest veterans’ organization here,” Lorenzana said.

From an estimated 300 supporters in the Lower House, the number went down to 180, before climbing again to 230 just before the close of session. Still, Pelosi did not call for a floor vote until the last four days of Congress.

By then, the provision on Filipino veterans’ benefits in S. 1315 had been scrapped because its source of fund – the $95 million a year disability fund available to American veterans benefitting from the Hartness decision – was removed. The Filipino veterans’ benefits would have tapped at least $30 million from that disability fund.

Economic intervention

The unpopular lump-sum bill was drafted by Filipino veterans’ equity proponent Rep. Bob Filner as a “fallback”, according to Lorenzana and other advocates, after Sen. Daniel Akaka, another champion of Filipino veterans’ equity, suggested that the veterans’ supporters in the Lower House just remove the part concerning the Hartness decision.

The provision on Filipino veterans would just be added when the House and the Senate sit in conference committee to reconcile the two versions of S. 1315, advocates were told.

But the U.S. economy intervened, Congress got scared and busy trying to halt the economic freefall, and everyone but the veterans forgot about the equity.

“The economy has swallowed the whole legislative agenda. The legislators were distracted from the veterans, and it’s understandable because this is a major challenge to the economic status quo,” Melegrito said.

“The downside is we’re suffering yet again the lack of attention because Congress was pressed by this economic crisis that they have to deal with first. So Filipinos are again victimized by a Congressional agenda that shifts the priority of Filipinos from top to bottom,” he explained.

The Veterans Equity Center, the only direct service provider for veterans in the United States, was not exactly heartbroken by the chain of events. It has not been ecstatic about S. 1315 in the first place, and it certainly is not happy about the fallback bill, H.R. 6897.

“Given the diminishing population of veterans, I don’t understand why we have to settle for less than the benefits in the original equity bill,” VEC executive director Luisa Antonio said.

The “original” equity bills are the S. 57 and its counterpart H.R. 760, both known as the Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2007. These bills sought to repeal the Rescission Act of 1946 and deem as active service the military services of the Philippine Scouts and the troops of the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines.

These equity bills would have changed the status of the Filipino veterans to U.S. veterans and made them eligible for the same benefits as the retired American soldiers.

The two bills, however, did not get enough support from Congress, and they evolved into the S. 1315, an enhancement of benefits, which in the end was also lost in the rubble of the economic meltdown.

“For someone like me who works with veterans and knows their benefits like the back of my hand, I know the Filipino veterans are getting the shortest end of the stick. That’s the reason I stick to my guns,” she added.

Red Tag Sale

American veterans who are disabled or aged 65 and above receive an annual pension ranging from $11,181 ($931 a month) to $22,113 ($1,842 a month), depending on the number of their dependents and their need for aid and medical assistance.

Filipino soldiers of World War II who can prove they were disabled because of their service during the war are eligible to get the same disability pension as American veterans, but not those who have no service-connected disability.

These Filipino veterans get nothing but their monthly SSI, which is part of the U.S. government’s welfare assistance for its senior citizens. The SSI amount depends on the state where the elderly live.

As of 2007, the highest-paying state is California ($856 a month), where about half of the 6,000 U.S.-based Filipino veterans stay, followed by Massachusetts ($751), New York ($710), Rhode Island ($680) and Vermont ($675). The other states give around $620.

Antonio said that with the amount of SSI the government is giving to Filipino veterans, it would not be hard to find ways of funding the pension for Filipino veterans despite the economic downturn.

It was, she said, simple arithmetic: The veterans were already being given SSI. If they should receive pension, then simply take the funding for their SSI, add the difference between the current SSI and the pension, and allocate this amount to the pension fund.

“The money is already there. Don’t tell me the difference is $1 billion,” she said.

Even if it is, the VEC sees a moral high ground in demanding that amount for the aging men who had given their lives and limbs for America when President Franklin Roosevelt called them to serve under the U.S. flag in 1941.

“This is a red tag sale. The United States has not given Filipino veterans their benefits since 1946, why are we nickel-and-diming them? $1 billion is not a lot when you can bail out Wall Street for $700 billion,” Antonio said.

“You’re bailing out people who might lose a summer home or maybe one of four helicopters or jets but we can’t help out the people who helped our country. That does not make sense,” she said.

Antonio and VEC chair, lawyer Lourdes Tancinco, have been taking a lot of heat for their hard-line position to lobby for full equity instead of mere veterans benefits enhancement, as other advocates have chosen to do as part of a strategy to gradually get all the benefits.

“This is not an issue of money. We’ve seen how they all suffered; those are just some of the veterans. What about those who have died? The courageous ones during the Bataan death march? We want the Rescission Act fully amended,” Tancinco said.

Educating legislators

The Rescission Act was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1946, just a year after the war ended. It said that Congress was willing to appropriate $200 million for the rebuilding of the Philippine Army provided that “the military service of the organized forces of the Commonwealth of the Philippines… shall be deemed not active service in the armed forces of the U.S. for purposes of the law conferring rights, privileges and benefits.”

Of the 66 nationalities that served with the American troops during World War II, only the Filipinos were singled out for this ineligibility to receive full military benefits.

Tancinco said it has been an uphill battle to make the U.S. government correct such an unconscionable action against Filipino soldiers because there are fewer and fewer members of Congress who know the history of the Filipinos’ service during the Second World War.

“The biggest challenge is to educate the legislators. You will always hear them saying, ‘Why give money to Filipinos? The money should go to our veterans.’ They don’t know the issues. They are not educated on the relationship of the United States and the Philippines in the past,” the lawyer, who has been involved in veterans advocacy since 1993, said.

Around 250,000 Filipinos were enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, mostly in the U.S. Army in the Far East, when President Roosevelt invoked his power to use the military of the commonwealth state. Only 18,155 of the veterans are still alive, but not for much longer. The youngest are in their 80s.

From the 24,000 veterans who were naturalized as American citizens by virtue of the 1990 Immigration and Naturalization Act, only 6,000 remain in the United States while others, wishing to spend their dying days with their families, have given up on the fight for equity and gone back home to the Philippines.

There are, however, the brave and hopeful few who remained.

“I’m 91. I know I may die soon, but let’s keep on fighting,” Celestino Almeda of Virginia urged his fellow veterans in a teleconference last September where they decided not to support H.R. 6897 because it did not recognize their military service and did not include compensation for veterans’ widows.

“We are blessed to be in America. We are here. Let’s do our best to fight for them who are in the Philippines. They are poor and dying,” said Almeda, one of the oldest surviving veterans here who remains active in lobby work.

The VEC people, too, are preparing their battle plan for the next Congress.

“We really have to train our energy for next year. There are things that we must insist on these people (legislators),” Antonio said.

Melegrito echoes that sentiment from Washington D.C.:

“If you’re fighting for principle, equity and justice, you cannot be tired; you cannot give up and say ‘Enough.’ It is for the sake of our children and our next generation; they have to know that the community did not stop fighting for the rights of these veterans. It will be a very shameful legacy if this community gives up.”

From the ACFV base in Virginia, Lachica makes a personal rallying cry:

“JFK said, ‘In politics, nothing happens; it’s made to happen.’ So we’re trying to make things happen. There are a lot of foes but if there’s political will, you will find a way. That’s the bottom line in Capitol Hill. Palakasan dito.”

Their physical strength may be waning, but their soldiers’ hearts are still bursting with pride and passion, and until the Filipino veterans get what they bled for, their war will never be over.  ##

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