POLITICS -- July 31, 2012 at 7:48 PM EDT
Some Filipino Vets Still Awaiting Recognition
Veteran Celestino Almeda. Photo courtesy of Eric Lachica.
World War II ended almost 70 years ago but some Filipino veterans are still waiting for recognition of their services.
"We are just asking for fair treatment," Celestino Almeda said.
Almeda is one of approximately 4,000 applicants for compensation who were not granted veteran status and are contesting that decision.
The path for recognition began years ago for Almeda, who fought for nearly six years to become a naturalized citizen via his veteran status. Almeda celebrated his 95th birthday this past June.
"Guess where I celebrated my birthday?" Almeda asked, chuckling. Along with other guests, Almeda attended a reception hosted by Secretary Hillary Clinton in honor of Filipino President Aquino. "I was one of the invited guests," Almeda said.
During World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt conscripted members of the Philippines Commonwealth Army to fight. "They were promised that they would be given all of the benefits [of] U.S. soldiers" said Rozita Lee of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. "In 1946, during President Truman's term, Congress decided there wasn't enough money to continue doing this and they reneged." Lee is referring to the Rescission Act of 1946 that removed full benefits from Filipino veterans.
The fight for more complete benefits for Filipino veterans escalated during the 1980s with the push for naturalization. Over the years, advocates also fought for injury compensation and treatment at Veterans Affairs hospitals. Their most substantial victory came in 2009, when President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that began the process of compensating Filipino veterans for their service.
The status of Filipino veterans remains complicated because there are multiple classifications listed in Department of Veterans Affairs documents. In addition to the Philippine Scouts, who directly served in a division of the U.S. Army, some Filipinos served as members of the Commonwealth Army of the Philippines, or as guerrilla fighters.
Philippine Scouts were able to be verified more easily because they were recorded through the U.S. military. However, veterans like Almeda who fought as soldiers in the Commonwealth Army faced more structural and bureaucratic barriers. In addition to filing in 1946, a second count of veterans was taken two years later, in 1948. By current standards for recognition, veterans must have their name on the 1948 list in addition to their discharge papers.
"There were a lot of investigations going on and rosters had to be done," Lachica said of the 1948 list's creation. He added that some veterans did not file second requests to be included and might have been deleted.
Certain documentation from the Commonwealth Army is not considered a valid replacement for not being on the 1948 list. "They say I don't have any records," Almeda said. "[The Department of Veteran Affairs] does not recognize the records from the Philippines army."
In correspondence with Mr. Almeda, Col. Jason T. Evans and Lt. Col. Joy L. Curriera sent a May 2, 2012 position paper from the U.S. Army Adjutant General Directorate stating: "The Philippine Army records in question are classified by [National Personnel Records Center] as Philippine military "organizational records" used to establish identity of Missing Persons Act (MPAP) status regarding Philippine Army personnel and recognized Guerrillas. These records are not Official Military Personnel Files (OMPF)."
"It's a bureaucratic Catch-22," Lachica said.
Celestino Almeda with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Photo courtesy of Eric Lachica.
The issue of recognizing Filipino veterans has garnered support from elected officials such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Inouye (D-Hawaii), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former President George W. Bush. President Obama has also expressed his support.
On July 26, 2012, Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) took the floor of the House to advocate for veteran recognition.
"[B]ureaucratic roadblocks continue to prevent nearly four thousand of these aging World War II veterans from collecting the benefits they are due," Heck said.
Support from Congress may not be enough to remove these obstacles. "I think the issue is that there's been a very carefully thought-out criteria to verify service," said Scott Levins, director of National Personnel Records Center. "Any changes to that ought to come from the Army."
An executive order could help to expedite the process, as time is no luxury for those awaiting a decision. Heck stated during his speech to Congress that two of the veterans seeking benefits in his district had recently passed away.
"Many more will pass without ever obtaining the recognition they deserved, if this body does not act to remove the barriers preventing these veterans from receiving the benefits they have earned," Heck said.
"One of the veterans I spoke to yesterday was 95 years old and we were wondering together, am I going to survive this issue?" Lee said.
The United States Army could not be reached for comment.