By Bert Eljera
LAS VEGAS – In their 80s and 90s, Filipino World War II veterans are still marching, this time not for battle but for recognition and benefits.
As the United States honored on Monday its veterans on Veterans’ Day, about 1,000 elderly Filipino veterans and their supporters marched in protest in a Hollywood suburbs in Southern California.
They were demanding for recognition of their sacrifices in World War II, as well as the benefits that are normally to accorded to U.S. veterans.
They are part of the estimated 43,000 Filipinos who fought alongside the Americans against the Japanese or who waged a guerrilla war in the Pacific, but were still fighting for recognition.
“We have lobbied Congress for 20 years and filed many cases in US courts yet our pleadings have fallen on deaf ears,” said 85-year-old veteran John Aspiras Jr., one of thousands of veterans whose claims for benefits had been denied. “We are here to take our case to the (American) people.”
Aspiras and other members of Justice for Filipino American Veterans (JFAV) led the march to a commuter-chocked area in Los Angeles and disrupted traffic.
Some of the protesters held signs that read: “Full Equity Now.”
An estimated 250,000 Filipinos fought for the United States during World War II and were promised equal treatment with American veterans after the war.
Units of the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) were integrated into the U.S. Army on orders by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with other regulars, such as the Philippine Scouts.
But in 1946, the US Congress enacted the Rescission Act that took away full recognition of some Filipino war vets and guerrilla units and stripped them of their benefits.
With intense lobbying and support from U.S. legislators, piecemeal benefits, such as combat-related medical care, burial, and Social Security Supplemental Income benefits were granted through the years.
In 2009, in one of President Obama’s first acts in office, he signed the Philippine Veterans Equity Act as part of a stimulus package that provided one-time payments of $15,000 to Filipino veterans in the United States and $9,000 to those living in the Philippines.
However, the claims of thousands of other veterans were denied since records from the Philippines proving their service were not accepted by US authorities.
According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, implementing guidelines require certification from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) that the names of veteran-claimants appear in both the Roster of Troops and the Discharge List prepared by the US Army at the end of the war.
Some aging veterans also said it was unrealistic to get them to file their claims before the Feb. 16, 2010, deadline, the Inquirer reported.
“This is a blot on America’s conscience, when those who fought and won its wars cannot be compensated and are continually denied their dignity and honor,” said JFAV national coordinator Arturo Garcia, who described the march as the biggest protest action staged by JFAV in Los Angeles.
“In the next three years, the last veterans of WWII (could) perish without seeing the light of recognition,” said 96-year-old Felino Punsalan in a letter sent by the JFAV to President Obama, asking him to issue an executive order to give full recognition to Filipino veterans. “As veterans, we do not beg for entitlement. We simply ask (for) the recognition that we earned with our sacrifice.”
Last month, Filipino veterans held a similar rally in front of the federal courthouse in San Francisco with JFAV legal counsel Arnedo Valera filing a lawsuit claiming discrimination against Filipino veterans.
The suit against the US Department of Veterans Affairs said the lump-sum payments of either $9,000 or $15,000 made to Filipino veterans were far below the benefits received by US veterans, including pensions and health care.
President Obama has created a White House inter-agency group to look into the case of the veterans, and a review could be forthcoming.
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