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Filipino World War II veterans get long-overdue honor, but for many it's too late

Filipino veteran Celestino Almeda speaks on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony at the Capitol in Washington where he expressed appreciation for the special recognition the United States finally gave to Filipinos who risked grave dangers to fight against Japanese forces occupying the Philippines during World War II.

By LEVI SUMAGAYSAY | Mercury News (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 28, 2017

A Filipino veteran of World War II spoke this week at a ceremony honoring him and his fellow vets in Washington, where they were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal after fighting in a real war, then fighting a long battle to be recognized for their service.

He had been waiting 75 years for this. President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised about 250,000 Filipino vets full benefits and U.S. citizenship, but that was rescinded by Congress and President Harry Truman in 1946.

This vet eventually got health benefits and U.S. citizenship. Now he will finally receive $15,000 under an equity bill signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. The money had been hard to come by because of lots of red tape; he had been appealing a denial of the compensation for a couple of years.

The Wednesday event was live-streamed on YouTube. I watched and wept tears of joy for him as he was given a standing ovation after declaring, "I am Celestino Almeda, a 100-year-old veteran of World War II."

And I shed tears for my grandfather, Gaudioso B. Evangelista, a vet who would have turned 100 on Oct. 28. He died in February. I wish he and many other Filipino vets could have lived to see this day.

I grew up typing letters for him – on a manual typewriter, then a word processor, then a PC – addressed to the Department of Veterans Affairs and to lawmakers. I wrote an article about his and other Filipino vets' fight for full benefits at my first newspaper job two decades ago.

I also interviewed my paternal grandfather, Juan S. Sumagaysay, for that article. Like my other grandfather, he was in the Bataan Death March. He also had a Purple Heart. He died in 2000, never knowing that one day he would finally be honored for fighting alongside Americans in the Pacific, contributing to the Allies' victory.

My grandmother, Gliceria P. Evangelista, died in 2004. She was a military nurse and met my maternal grandfather during the war.

My grandparents would've appreciated the ceremony, where attendees heard both the U.S. and Philippine national anthems.

At the Novato nursing home where Lt. Col. Evangelista, as he often referred to himself, spent the last decade-plus of his life, he proudly displayed the flags of both countries. He was 69 years old when he moved to California from the Philippines to help my parents take care of my sisters and me, but he had long felt a kinship with other Americans because of his service in the war. He joined the American Legion, became a commander of one of its posts and made friends with fellow vets, both Filipino and American. In November 2016, he gave a Veterans Day speech at the nursing home.

This week's Gold Medal ceremony was attended by Republican and Democratic lawmakers amid a divisive political climate.

"We are living in tumultuous times, and we have many disagreements," Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said. "But on this we agree: that it is our responsibility as public servants and Americans to honor each veteran in the same way that they honored our country."

Hirono sponsored the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015 with four co-sponsors. The bipartisan list of sponsors eventually grew to 71. The fight to honor the vets dragged on so long that Hirono acknowledged the considerable efforts of Sens. Daniel Inouye, who is deceased, and Daniel Akaka, who is retired.

I have a boxful of my grandfather's documents, including denial letters and applications for compensation. In 2010, my Lolo pleaded with the VA to give him more than 30 days to gather affidavits from comrades, "considering the lapse of more than six decades," he wrote. He needed to track them down, or even remember some of their names. "Please give me more time," he wrote on the application. He got neither that nor the $15,000.

"It's the mark of a confident and exceptional nation to look back at its history and say that we made a grievous error," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said at the Gold Medal ceremony. "But we recognize it and pledge to never let it happen again."

However, under President Donald Trump's administration, some green-card holders are not being allowed to enlist in the Army Reserves and the National Guard, and other foreign-born recruits are facing tightened rules.

If Filipino war veterans taught us anything, it's that people born elsewhere have the ability to love America and be loyal to its ideals. I hope Sen. Schumer is right, and that we don't again deny respect to those willing to fight under our flag.


(c)2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)
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Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., holds the Congressional Gold Medal that was presented to Filipino servicemembers who served during World War II. Attending the event in front row from left are Filipino veteran Celestino Almeda, American veteran Frank Francone, Filipino veteran Aquilino Delen, Ryan, and the next of kin to Filipino veterans Alicia Benitez, Margrit Baltazar and Caroline Burkhart. In back row from left are Veteran's Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Democratic Leader of the Senate Chuck Schumer of New York, Democratic Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii.

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