Philippine vets still fighting their battle over WWII
WASHINGTON - For a dwindling group of aging Philippine World War II veterans, the battle to gain recognition for their service goes on.
The veterans, many in their 80s and 90s, thought they had won a decades-long struggle when President Barack Obama signed legislation in 2009 providing one-time payments for helping U.S. troops fight the Japanese. Philippine veterans who are U.S. citizens can receive $15,000, and noncitizens, including those living in the Philippines, $9,000.
But more than half of the 43,083 applicants were turned down, most because their wartime service could not be verified by U.S. military records. The U.S. government had paid 18,698 claims as of Aug. 1.
In response to complaints, the White House has been reviewing the payment process.
Separately, a bill has been introduced in Congress that could put the spotlight back on the veterans' wartime contributions: It would award the fighters the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.
Regalado Baldonado, 86, of San Francisco, is among those who can't figure out why he was denied the money: He received medals for his wartime service and submitted affidavits by two recognized veterans attesting to his service.
"They said my name is not on the list," he said, referring to military records that the government relies on to determine eligibility. "How could it be?" he added, noting that he joined a force of guerrilla fighters at age 15.
"We won the war," he said, adding, "with our help."
The government uses records compiled in the 1940s _ affidavits submitted by guerrillas and members of the Philippine army and U.S. Army rosters of Philippine fighters.
"We are committed to support the veterans," said Kevin Pratt of the National Archives and Records Administration. "But we also have a responsibility to the taxpayers."
Delfin N. Lorenzana, a retired general who heads the Office of Veterans Affairs at the Philippine Embassy in Washington, contends that the lists are incomplete and that the U.S. government should consider other documents that many of the veterans have kept over the decades.
The Philippines was a U.S. colony when thousands of Filipinos joined with American forces, taking part in some of the most fabled action in the Pacific theater, including the siege of Corregidor and the infamous Bataan Death March.
For a number of the veterans, it's not just about collecting the cash.
"I don't care about the $15,000," said Celestino Almeda, 95, a veteran who lives in Maryland. "What's important is the recognition."
In urging her colleagues to support the gold medal awards she is sponsoring, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, said: "Our nation still struggles today to compensate these brave veterans for their valor."
Congress in recent years has awarded gold medals to other World War II-era groups, including the Women Airforce Service Pilots; the first black Marines, known as the Montford Point Marines; and Japanese-American members of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service.
Hanabusa has also introduced a bill addressing veterans' frustration about the payments. Her measure would require the Army to broaden the types of documents used to determine whether a Filipino performed military service on behalf of the United States during World War II.
The White House launched its own review in the fall after hearing from veterans who believed their claims were unfairly denied.
"When I talk to these veterans, and they show me the paperwork they have, it seems very compelling," said Christopher Lu, Obama's liaison to the Cabinet and co-chairman of the White House's Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Over the years, the veterans have staged protests to call attention to their cause, which over the decades also included efforts to gain citizenship. In their younger years they chained themselves to the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, their former commander, in Los Angeles' MacArthur Park, and to the White House fence. They have also walked the halls of Congress wearing their uniforms and medals.
Many of them are California residents, prompting a number of members of the state's congressional delegation to take up their cause. Rep. Jackie Speier, a Democrat, welcomed the White House's review but said in a recent interview: "I don't want all the Filipino vets to be dead before a report comes out from the White House saying, 'We need to fix this.'
"The cost is small, but more importantly, it's something that we owe," she said.