After 75 Years a Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino WW II veterans

by Joseph G. Lariosa

WASHINGTON, D.C. (JGL) — After 75 years, Celestino Almeda, the 100-year-old Filipino World War II veteran, has finally gotten his due — the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions bestowed on him and thousands of others by the U.S. Congress.

As one of the two speakers from among the six Filipino veterans and next of kin during ceremonies Wednesday (Oct. 25) in the Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol, the emotional Almeda got a standing ovation when he said, “I am Celestino Almeda, a 100 year-old veteran of WW II!”

Almeda got another round of applause when he told a packed crowd, “We stand loyal to your country, rely on fate and prayer. And thanks the Lord for watching over us. In the words of an American Soldier’s Creed and a member of our team, I believe I served my mission first. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade behind. Thank you for sharing this glorious day. As the song goes, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

Among those who honored Almeda were U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Rep. Ed Royce (R-39-CA), who were on hand during the presentation of the medal.

In dramatic remarks, Veterans Affairs Sec. Shulkin said when he learned a few weeks ago that Almeda’s application for the $15,000 lump-sum benefit was still pending, he rushed the processing of the application. He wanted him to be covered by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus bill signed by President Obama, which provides benefits for Filipino and Filipino American Work War II veterans.

Aside from Almeda, who represented the Philippine Commonwealth Army, the others presented the Congressional Gold Medal were Frank Francone, American Veteran representing the (New) Philippine Scouts; Dean Aquilino Delen, Filipino veteran representing Guerrilla units; Alicia Benitez, next of kin of Filipino veteran; Margrit Baltazar, next of kin of Filipino veteran; and Caroline Burkhart, next of kin of American (Old) Philippine Scout.

Daughter of an old Philippine Scouts 

Burkhart, daughter of Thomas F. Burkhart of Pennsylvania who served in the 45th U.S. Army Infantry of the Old Philippine Scout and who saw action in the Battle of Bataan, said, “I know my father would be proud along with his brothers in arms who fought beside each other and were determined to win against the brutal enemy.

She thanked Speaker Ryan for hosting and presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to the Filipino Veterans of WW II.  “Thank you  for believing in the honorable service of their wartime services in the Philippines,” she said.

For his part, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) told the Journal GlobaLinks, “The Filipino soldiers fought for freedom and preservation of life and liberty we now all enjoy. Let’s not therefore forget the glorious past with its lessons and, of course, now that we all can enjoy our God-given talents.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) also spoke on the House floor to pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of over 260,000 Filipino and Filipino American soldiers who bravely served our country during World War II. Earlier today, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard joined Senator Hirono and other Congressional leaders in presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to Filipino World War II veterans in a presentation ceremony in the U.S. Capitol.

He mentioned heroes like Sixto Tabay, the last living Filipino WW II veteran on the island of Kauaʻi who he met recently. “People like him fought bravely and sacrificed greatly, and so many made the ultimate sacrifice alongside our American troops in that war, yet their service for decades has gone unrecognized by our country,” he said.

Public Law UBL 114-265

Congresswoman Gabbard and Senator Hirono’s law, the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act (Public Law 114-265), unanimously passed through Congress and was signed into law by President Obama in December 2016. The law awarded the medal collectively to the over 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers who responded to President Roosevelt’s call-to-duty and fought under the American flag during World War II.

“Because of legislation that we passed, today is a very special day. These warriors are finally receiving the recognition they earned and deserve, joining the heroic ranks of the likes of the Tuskegee Airmen and Hawaii’s own 442nd/100th Infantry Battalion as we honored them in the U.S. Capitol with the Congressional Gold Medal – Congress’s highest civilian honor.”

Coin characteristics 

The CGM legislation requires the Smithsonian Institution or another national museum of similar repute to display the Congressional Gold Medal. The replicas that will be purchased by the veterans will be a bronze medal.

Congressional Gold Medal presented collectively to Filipino Veterans of World War II who served honorably in an active duty status between July 26, 1941 and December 31, 1946, under the command of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) within the Philippine Commonwealth Army, the Philippine Scouts, the Philippine Constabulary, recognized guerrilla units, the New Philippine Scouts, the First Filipino Infantry Regiment, the Second Filipino Infantry Battalion (Separate), or the First Reconnaissance Battalion, including those commanding or serving as U.S. military officers or enlisted soldiers.

Its obverse (heads side) displays part of the range and breadth of the Filipino Veterans’ service in World War II. Depicted are a Filipino scout, a Filipino infantry regiment officer and a guerrilla soldier. In the foreground is an infantryman on guard, symbolizing the soldiers’ fierce determination.

The reverse (tails side) design displays both the American and Filipino World War II-era flags.

With report of Marlon L. Pecson

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