Victory at last!

by Gus Mercado

With one bold and historic stroke of his pen, President Barrack Obama corrected many decades of neglect and humiliation for our dying Filipino WWII veterans. The multi-billion dollar economic stimulus bill to revive the ailing U.S. economy includes lump-sum $198 million appropriation for 18,000 surviving Filipino heroes of WWII in the U.S. and in the Philippines, out of more than 200,000 Filipino soldiers who were conscripted to serve in the war, most of whom have already died.

The approval of the bill by both houses of Congress and its eventual signing into law are historic in many respects: It is the first major legislation signed by the first minority U.S. president, it was appropriately signed on February 16th, Presidents’ Day, and for the first time after 60 years of delays and neglect, the U.S. government officially recognized the services and sacrifices of our aging veterans in defense of the American flag and the Filipino people during the dark days of the second World War.  It is also the 63rd anniversary of the infamous 1946 Rescission Act that originally deprived our veterans of their rightful benefits and stripped them of their status as U.S. veterans.

A Brief Historical Perspective

During WWII, President Roosevelt called over 200,000 Filipino soldiers into service under the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East (USAFFE). Many more volunteered. Women and children joined the underground guerilla movement. The entire Filipino nation made the war a living hell for the occupying Japanese forces. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur ordered the combined American and Filipino forces to stand strong and defend the Philippines at all costs, that’s exactly what they did. According to military historians, if the gallant defenders of Bataan and Corregidor did not hold on for so long while the Allied forces were regrouping in Australia, the war might have had a different outcome. The freedoms that we now enjoy and sometimes take for granted might have been lost in the Pacific battlefields if not for the unusual bravery of the Filipinos. When it was all over, more than one million Filipino lives had been lost in the brutal war. Thousands died in the infamous Bataan death march .

On February 18, 1946, Congress passed a Rescission Act that revoked these soldiers’ status as U.S. veterans.  Of the Filipino soldiers originally called to serve, only 18,000 are alive today.  This bill recognizes these veterans’ military service as U.S. veterans, and additionally provides one-time payments of $15,000 to Filipino American veterans residing in the U.S. or in the Philippines, and $9,000 to veterans who are Philippine citizens. It also contains a provision for spouses and protects eligibility for benefits currently received by veterans.

Although the bill does not provide the full equity that we have been campaigning for, and the one-time monetary payment to the veterans seems small especially to those leaders of the veterans who have spent all their meager resources marching in Washington D.C. to get the lawmakers’ attention, the bill is, nevertheless, a significant victory for them and a huge moral boost to their cause. The much-awaited compensation, albeit small, could not have come at a more opportune time for many of them whose battle-weary bodies are in the final twilight of their lives. Every day, seven of them pass away without seeing the benefits of this victory.

The curse of Sisyphus has been broken

In our past columns, we likened the valiant struggle of the Filipino veterans and the indefatigable Fil-Am community leaders supporting them year in and year out to the curse of Sisyphus, the mythological Greek character who was cursed to push a huge boulder up the hill and as he is about to reach the top of his goal, the big stone would roll back down and he would start all over again. At the start of each Congress, the unrelenting veterans and their community lobbyists, NAFFAA/NAFVE and the ACFV being the most prominent, would work very hard to knock on the legislators’ doors, send letters and faxes to our respective senators and congressmen begging them for support. Every year, we would convince a growing list of legislators to support the Veterans Equity Bill but the numbers were never enough, and the personal support from the incumbent presidents was half-hearted lip service at best. Due to the failure of the vast majority of Fil-Ams to do their share, our untiring yearly campaigns would always end in a disappointing defeat. But we never gave up. Sisyphus kept pushing, pushing and pushing and finally, the curse has been broken. Sisyphus can now rest his weary body, and the Filipino veterans can finally heave a big sigh of relief.

Give credit where it is due: The Real Heroes

After a long-fought victory of this magnitude, it is common among Filipinos who never lifted a finger and never sent a single letter to their congressmen to come out of the woodworks to claim credit, reminiscent of the balimbings of the first People Power revolution of 1986. Every well-meaning Filipino regardless of where they are and what contributions they made personally to the veterans’ cause, is enjoined to join in the celebration of this historic victory. But it is also fitting and proper to give credit where it is really due.

The real heroes behind this victory are of course the veterans themselves, who never gave up in their quest for equity and justice. Next to be thanked are our steadfast supporters in Congress led by the Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye who bravely defended his action of inserting the veterans’ allocation in the controversial Economic Stimulus bill against many detractors. Also instrumental in the passage of the bill and support of the veterans were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Daniel Akaka among others. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support was critical, as well as Rep. Mika Honda, and the House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner. Here in North Texas, we can point to the strong support provided by House Appropriations Committee Chair Chet Edwards, with whom we made personal representations.

Without the support of about a dozen veterans’ advocacy groups in the country, the veterans could not have done the lobbying and mass education efforts by themselves. Most prominent among these advocacy groups are NaFFAA/NAFVE (National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity) and the ACFV (American Coalition of Filipino Veterans) under Eric Lachica who was unrelenting in his public information campaigns.

The National Federation of Filipino-American Associations (NaFFAA) placed the Filipino Veterans equity on top of its community empowerment agenda at the 1998 founding conference in Washington D.C. and have been carrying the veterans banner ever since. NaFFAA founder Alex Esclamado travelled to all parts of the country mobilizing grassroots support for the veterans’ equity bill. After Esclamado retired, his efforts were carried on by his successors Loida Nicolas Lewis, Alma Kern and the incumbent NaFFAA national chairman Greg Macabenta. The Philippine Ambassador to the U.S., notably Ambassador Willie Gaa and Military Attache General Del Lorenzana have also provided significant support over the years.

At the local level, a significant segment of the Fil-Am community leadership in North, South and Central Texas have been taking the lead of NaFFAA/NAFVE and the ACFV in mobilizing local support and lobbying their U.S. congressmen for their votes every time the Equity bill was brought up in the Congress. When a caravan of about 200 Bataan veterans passed through Dallas en route to the biggest Filipino veterans march in Washington DC, several dozen Fil-Am leaders took off from work, hosted the veterans and marched with them in front of the Dallas Morning News and the City Hall (see photo).

Beware of politicians and fixers

At a teleconference yesterday of the NAFFAA/NAFVE (National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity), we discussed a plan to initiate an implementation support mechanism to make sure that the veterans are informed of the proper procedure to avail themselves of the benefits from the bill and to get their funds directly without paying unscrupulous “fixers” which reportedly are now rampant in the Philippines. We also plan to initiate measures to make sure that politicians do not use the hard-earned victory of our veterans for personal or political gain. There are already unconfirmed reports that Malacanang media is out ascribing credit for the veterans’ victory to incumbent president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. This writer feels that President Arroyo is justified in leading a national celebration on behalf of the veterans. We also believe that the Philippine president provided the official imprimatur to all our lobbying efforts and most likely sent personal appeals to the leaders of Congress. Having said that, for Malacanang media to tell the Filipino people that the veterans owe their victory to the Philippine president, at the exclusion of the Fil-Am foot soldiers who tirelessly walked the halls of Congress and spent many days and nights calling and faxing their senators and congressmen is plain wrong. No one should make political capital of our veterans.

Regardless of many more implementation issues that will come up, let us all savor this victory and feel really good for the veterans of “the most noble of American wars – WWII, whose untold sacrifices and devotion to their cause has finally seen the light of day.  Be grateful for their bravery. Honor their spirit and their dedication that paved the way for us that we may enjoy our good fortunes and freedoms in this our adopted land. For it was their blood and tears that gave us safe passage into this country.

About the Author: Gus Mercado is an award-winning writer and civic leader from Lantana, Texas. He is Regional Chair Emeritus of the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations and Regional Chair of the Sons and Daughters of World War II Veterans. He has been actively involved in the national movement to lobby for the Filipino WWII veterans and other Filipino-American issues for 25 years. A three-time “U.S. Jaycee of the Year,” Mercado is a retired executive of Caltex Petroleum and Sprint International and is currently CEO of Datalogix, a thriving high-tech company that employs hundreds of Filipino engineers.

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