Photo: Former WWII soldier Gregorio Duldulao Garcia, 89. (Filipino-American Bulletin/Sluggo Rigor)
SEATTLE, Wash.—In a potential breakthrough for thousands of elderly Filipino soldiers who fought under United States command in World War II, the Obama administration released a formerly secret wartime-era report that may finally loosen the U.S. military’s bureaucratic grip on $40 million still payable to the aging soldiers.
“Hundreds of old soldiers like me have died waiting, sick and angry,” stated Gregorio Duldulao Garcia, 89, of Seattle. “Those who pass away are not paid. Why? How about their widows or families? Is it their fault that they die waiting?”
Like Garcia, according to the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans (ACFV), these Filipino veterans are now in the their mid-80s and 90s. Only about 50,000 of the original 550,000 fighters are still alive. The coalition estimates that an average 300 of them pass away each month.
“A Moral Obligation”
After decades of delays since President Harry Truman called it a “moral obligation of the United States to look after the welfare of Philippine Army veterans,” the Obama administration provided and Congress $265 million for one-time payments to the surviving soldiers.
The Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Act, was passed by Congress as part the economic stimulus package Congress enacted in 2009. But thousands of the soldiers who were denied their claims are awaiting rulings on their appeals to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
It is not clear why decades of U.S. presidents shelved the promise of compensation, especially since President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered them drafted in 1941, as members of the Philippines Commonwealth Army, into the U.S. armed forces.
Ironically, the U.S. Senators who pushed hardest in Congress for payment program in recent years were WWII veterans Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, both of Japanese descent.
Only 43,083 of the remaining soldiers and guerrillas filed claims under the new compensation fund for one-time grants of $15,000 for veterans who reside in the U.S., and $9,000 for those living in the Philippines.
The amount, which the VA told advocates for the elders was “computed based on economics,” is so modest that veterans’ organizations in the Philippines regard it as derogatory. Most of those who applied for compensation were enlisted men, guerrillas or foot soldiers. Many higher-ranking Filipino officers did not apply. As one California-based Philippine commodore said in an interview after the U.S. government announced the program, they do not wish “to be looked upon as mendicants.”
Initially, the VA denied more than half of the applications. Among those who applied, 18, 698 were approved and received payments.
Of the approximately 24,000 elders whose applications were denied, only 4,000 filed appeals. Many of the rejections were based on what advocates say is an unjustly complicated standard for the seniors to prove they qualify for the compensation.
Advocates trace many of the veterans’ disqualifications to rules that were set by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2011 requiring the National Personnel Records Center, located in St. Louis, Mo., to certify that a veteran claimant’s name appears in both the Roster of Troops and the Discharge List prepared by the U.S. Army at war’s end. The names of many appear on only one of the lists.
Quite a few of their names may also appear in the U.S. Commonwealth Philippine Army soldiers' and guerrillas’ records, also archived at the Center—but a decade ago, the U.S. Army declared that those documents “are not official."
The veterans’ advocacy coalition is requesting that the U.S. government consider all sources of war service records, and advocates for the seniors expect the newly released wartime documents to bolster the cases for the remaining 4,000 Filipino veterans who have filed appeals.
The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders announced on November 19, that the National Archives and Records Administration have publicly released the 335-page report, previously classified as secret, entitled “U. S. Army Recognition Program of Philippine Guerrillas.”
Compiled after the war, the report includes such material as U.S. Army policy and administrative memoranda issued during and after WWII. Those championing the elders expect the records to impact the outcome of the pending appeals by the veterans and their surviving widows. Especially critical to the elders’ claims are official rosters of what the military deemed to be “recognized” guerrilla units.
The army released the report following a concerted appeal over the last year by a nationwide veterans advocacy coalition, including Philippine Ambassador Jose Cuisia, the Philippines’ Washington D.C.-based Philippine Veterans Affairs chief, General Delfin Lorenzana, officials of the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations and other stakeholders.
Obama: “It Is Our Priority”
Advocates for the seniors pressed the Obama administration to step up decision-making on the veterans’ appeals following the November election. Representatives of the coalition were invited to a Veteran’s Day reception in the Blue Room of the White House. There, President Obama received the coalition's letter of appreciation for the efforts of White House Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu on the Filipino WWII veterans’ issue.
"It is our priority," the president replied.
Lu, who is President Obama’s primary liaison to the cabinet departments and agencies, told the veterans and advocates that the Interagency Working Group, which included representatives from the VA, Department of Defense, National Archives and Record Administration and Office of Management and Budget, will analyze the process of eligibility for compensation in order to ensure that all applications are afforded fair analysis. Also at the White House’s Veterans Day breakfast, Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans (ACFV), spoke to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and thanked him for his support of the Interagency Working Group and handed him the group’s letter urging hastened action on the veterans’ appeals.
Lachica noted the need for a quick resolution on the veterans’ appeals in an interview. “The impending fiscal cliff and budget cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011 could impact the VA budget starting in January 2013, unless Congress and the White House find a legislative solution in the next few weeks,” he said.
Hearing about the release of the WWII report, Garcia, the octogenarian warrior, commented,
“It is good that documents compiled almost 70 years ago are being opened for review. We want to know the basis for which guerilla groups are recognized,” Garcia said.
Garcia fought in the decisive battle of Bessang Pass where Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita was captured in June 1944. Attached to the Third Battalion of the 15th Infantry Regiment under the U.S. Armed Forces in the Philippines – North Luzon (USAFIP-NL), he helped secure a radio station.
“The enemy was desperate and they fought fiercely,” Garcia recalled in an interview. “Many of my comrades died in countless battles. Food and water were scarce. I suffered from malaria because the front was mosquito-infested.”
He expressed disappointment over the long years of waiting for the promised benefits and questioned why so many brave fighters are now not recognized.
As President Truman stated almost seven decades ago, “They fought with gallantry and courage under most difficult conditions.”
Sluggo Rigor wrote this story for the Filipino-American Bulletin through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.
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