Editor's Note: This story, which originally appeared in the Philipine News, was produced as part of NAM's Stimulus Watch coverage and was funded with a grant from the Open Society Institute. It is the first in a two-part series. The second part, on delays in paying the claims, will run tomorrow.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It felt like winning the lottery, mused Alberto Bacani, 99. Two months after the economic stimulus package became law in February 2009, he got a check for $15,000, making him the first veteran to be compensated for his service in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II.
“It was the day before Bataan Day,” recalled the Japanese POW during World War II.
He got an invitation to attend an April 8, 2009, ceremony commemorating the Bataan Death March of 1942, during which the Japanese Imperial Army beat and tortured thousands of Filipino and American troops who had surrendered after months of fighting in the Bataan peninsula north of Manila. Bacani came to the United States in 1976, working initially as a bookkeeper in a travel agency; prior to retirement, he was a librarian at the Environmental Protection Agency office in Virginia.
“They told me I have been chosen to be given the first check because all my records were complete,” he narrated from a sharp memory that remembered every detail. “I made sure I wore a nice suit.”
Before a small crowd of Philippine embassy officials, community leaders and fellow veterans, he received a check from (ret.) Maj. Gen. Anthony Taguba, who represented Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. No member of his family could attend the ceremony at the Chancery in Washington: His children were at work and his wife Saturnina was in a hospital.
Fellow veterans Celestino Almeda, 92, and Franco Arcebal, 86, aren’t as lucky as Bacani, a dignified-looking man who is partially deaf but remains cheerful in his advancing age. Like Bacani, they promptly filed their payment claims shortly after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was signed into law on February 13, 2009. Last month, Almeda, who served in the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East from 1941 to 1946, received a denial letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“They told me not to contact the VA. That if they need something, they will contact me,” he said quoting from the letter. The VA did contact him a week later to let him know his document is incomplete and that the VA needed Form E23, or a certificate of discharge from the Philippine Army.
“I called my granddaughter in the Philippines to follow up with the Army,” he told this reporter, speaking with a slightly muffled voice. He said he is suffering from pneumonia and walks around with an oxygen tube to help him breathe easier.
How the Filipino veterans’ equity intersected with the biggest bailout package since the Great Depression - the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or ARRA -- is a story that is as inspiring as it is baffling. Hearing it told by the veterans today makes for invaluable oral history.
The struggle for recognition spans six decades, beginning in the aftermath of World War II. In 1946, President Harry Truman signed the Rescission Act and erased everything that the Filipino veterans hoped to gain for themselves and their families. It eliminated all the benefits the U.S. government had promised the Filipinos who volunteered to fight under the Commonwealth Army of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Filipino recruits - numbering anywhere from 200,000 to 470,000 -- were promised a bundle of incentives, including U.S. citizenship.
What this means, according to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI)., is that the rescission law “denies Filipino veterans access to health care and pension benefits.” The law (also known as Section 107 Article 38 of the U.S. Code) also limits service-connected disability and death compensation to 50 percent of what is being received by U.S. veterans.
What turned out to be particularly degrading is that the law withheld recognition for the veterans’ combat service. It dismissed their sacrifices, their torture at the hands of the Japanese as if they never happened. Turning them into non-entities deepened the humiliation for the veterans who wanted nothing more than to be treated with respect. The law states that the combat service performed by the Filipinos was “not deemed to have been active military, naval, or air service.” As a result, Filipino soldiers under the Commonwealth forces were not entitled to any “rights, privileges or benefits.”
Truly a “dark chapter in history,” conceded (ret.) Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus, chief of the Philippine Embassy’s Office of Veterans Affairs.
Advocates in Training
In the 1980s to 1990s, Filipino-American veterans began to aggressively organize with the support of the community. They marched on Congress, held meetings with lawmakers and spoke up in congressional hearings. Franco Arcebal was briefly jailed in 1997 after he and about 15 others chained themselves to a fence near the White House to call attention to what they felt was the U.S. government’s attitude of imperiousness and indifference. They were hauled to a nearby jail, fingerprinted and later released on a $50 fine for each of them. What they didn’t bargain for but got: maximum TV exposure! Imagine a group of elderly veterans, some in wheelchairs and with canes, being led to a police van in dramatic news footage.
Recalling the incident made Arcebal laugh. The jail time was nothing, he said, compared to his wartime incarceration for being a guerrilla intelligence officer for the Americans. “I was tortured and jailed and sentenced to be beheaded, but I was able to escape,” he said, his voice turning serious. “And now, they don’t want to recognize my service?”
Tucked on page 86 of the 406-page, $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a little-known feature called the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation (FVEC) providing a $198 million equity compensation for 18,000 Filipino veterans.
Arcebal and his fellow veterans celebrated, thinking they would finally receive the benefits they were promised 60 years earlier. But as the next parts of the series will show, the new law did not represent a complete victory, only a passage into the next phase of struggle.
The Battle in Congress
The Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation could have never passed without Inouye.
He is chairman of the powerful appropriations committee and one of the sponsors of the stimulus bill. The 86-year-old senator is also a long-time friend of the Philippines and made frequent visits to the country when Ferdinand Marcos was in power. There is a constituency connection behind this friendship. Hawaii, the state Inouye represents, has many Filipinos of Ilocano roots, meaning they come from the northern part of the Philippines where Marcos hails from.
More than his friendship with the Filipino leader, Inouye is also a World War II veteran. After many Japanese-American families were rounded up and forced into concentration camps during the war, Inouye joined other young Japanese who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Inouye lost his right arm when his unit fought in Italy. He would give up his dream of becoming a doctor, and studied law instead, eventually pursuing a career in politics.
Because he is essentially one of them, Inouye has taken on the Filipino veterans’ cause in the U.S. Congress almost from the beginning. There have been many lawmakers who championed the veterans’ cause, but always Inouye and his fellow Democratic senator and World War II veteran Daniel Akaka, would be there, according to Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV), a registered lobby group.
“They fought arm-in-arm with our Filipino veterans,” Lachica said. “They have known the experience of being discriminated, and they wanted us to be treated as full American veterans.” Inouye and Akaka would be joined by other Asian-Pacific Islander legislators, such as Rep. Mike Honda, as well as other prominent lawmakers like Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Bob Filner in sponsoring legislation that would restore the benefits of Filipino veterans.
Over the years, some benefits, including health care and burial, would be partially restored. A 1990 law would later award citizenship to about 26,000 Filipino veterans. But to many veterans, these were not enough. They wanted the U.S. to “do the right thing” and give back the full recognition that was taken away wholesale by the Rescission Act of 1946.
The campaign to define what “full recognition” entailed became the impetus for the FVEC. For almost six decades the United States and the Philippines would go toe-to-toe trying to craft a law that would restore the respect appropriate for the Filipino veterans and their war-time service. A stream of presidents from both countries, as well as ambassadors, would pledge support, exert their own influence, pull their own behind-the-scene strings, to make full recognition happen, such as when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo hired the Covington & Burling lobby group with marching orders to 1) refurbish the image of the Philippines in wake of the extra-judicial killings of activists and journalists 2) get her an audience with President Barack Obama, and 3) get the veterans pension bill approved in Congress. Many of the bills on Filipino veterans had a short shelf life in Congress because there would always be opposition to cost and budget. But there would always be a core group of lawmakers who believed in the issue, pick it up again, dust it off, and refile it. The cycle went on for decades.
“Even if our issue is a strong issue, if you ask Congress for money, it will take years and years,” said Arcebal. “They know our cause is just, but getting the money is a different issue.”
One of the more promising bills - the Veterans Enhancement Bill 2008 -- was for a monthly pension similar to the one given to American veterans. The proposal called for a monthly pension of $911 for each Filipino veteran in the United States and $300 for those in the Philippines -- legislation that would have cost the United States $40 billion yearly. This, too, did not live long after some sectors - mainly conservatives - made it appear the money to pay Filipino veterans would come from the American veterans’ budget. No such thing was intended, according to the bill’s sponsors.
Ultimately, the sponsors, led by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Bob Filner, decided a one-time compensation - to be called equity instead of pension - would be an easier hurdle. A bill seeking to provide a lump sum payment of $15,000 for each veteran living in the United States and $9,000 for each veteran in the Philippines passed both the Senate and the House. The number of eligible veterans was pegged at 18,000. The surviving spouse is entitled to the benefit if her husband dies while his claim is pending, but not if she was already widowed before the law was passed. The sum total came out to $198 million.
Retired Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus, head of the Philippine Embassy’s Veterans Affairs office, and Veterans Service Officer Percival Abu made a curious observation about the amount of $198 million. When the Rescission Act became law, they said the U.S. government was able to save $3.2 billion by withholding all the benefits promised to the Filipino veterans. But to ensure everything ended amicably, the United States offered a token $200 million to the Philippines in exchange for abandoning all its claims for compensation and benefits due the veterans. The “quit claim” offer was rejected and denounced by the Philippines as “an act of discrimination.”
That not much has changed in the amount over the years was promptly noted by Corpus and Abu.
Even at its reduced price tag, the equity bill continued to languish in Congress, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi getting the heat from some in the FilAm community for not doing enough to shake it loose and get it passed. Came the Obama administration and the federal lifeline known as the economic stimulus bill. This became the vehicle in which the veterans bill got its ride back to congressional attention.
“Senator Inouye said the best way would be to include it in the stimulus bill,” Lachica said. “It was a shortcut situation, the stimulus bill was faced with very little opposition. The timing was fortunate.”
Echoed Abu, “The stimulus bill was the vehicle used [for the veterans bill to get passed]. The money was already appropriated, but it cannot be spent unless there is a vehicle.”
As Inouye commands “great respect” from lawmakers, the FVEC sailed through somewhat smoothly on the floor. Except for one or two questions from the opposition, “there was not much discussion about it,” Abu said.
Official estimates put the number of eligible veterans in the United States and the Philippines at approximately 15,000, down from 18,000 when the bill was being crafted. The fact that veterans die at a rate of three to four a day is a statement used to dramatize the urgency of the compensation reaching them.
As of January 28 (the latest as of press time), the VA has received approximately 41,000 claims, including duplicates - or about 37,000 excluding duplicates. The VA said it has made decisions on approximately 21,000 claims and approved 12,148 of those. Total payouts are approximately $146 million.