On April 7 at the historic Presidio in San Francisco, surviving Filipino World War II veterans or their next of kin living in Northern California, will receive bronze replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award conferred by the United States.
The original gold medal (not to be confused with the Congressional Medal of Honor) will be permanently displayed at the Smithsonian, alongside those of other recipients, such as George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, St. Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, the Navajo Talkers, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the fatalities in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, to mention a few.
Suffice it to say that our old soldiers will be in heroic company.
Last Oct. 25, 2017, at the Emancipation Hall in the US Congress, the first batch of Filipino veterans, as well as the immediate relatives of those who had died, received their medals. Doing the honors were House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans, and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrats.
The ceremony in Washington DC came 76 years after the call to arms issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, a few months before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. It also came 71 years after the passage of the Rescission Act of 1946 that singled out Filipinos as being ineligible for veterans’ benefits — a colossal injustice inflicted by the US Congress and signed into law by then President Harry S. Truman, despite knowing that it was discriminatory.
The Congressional Gold Medal officially rectifies the discrimination and acknowledges the gallantry and heroism of the 260,000 young Filipinos who answered Roosevelt’s call to arms.
The road to this formal acknowledgement has been long and arduous — a struggle that I characterized in one column as The Second Death March.
In 1997, in connection with the 1st Filipino American National Empowerment Conference in Washington DC (that resulted in the formation of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations), several aging veterans marched in front of the White House and some chained themselves to the fence to attract media attention to the injustice. The old soldiers were arrested and fined $50 each but the media exposure made the civil disobedience worthwhile.
The intensive lobbying conducted by veterans’ advocates, NaFFAA, and FilAm community leaders subsequently resulted in some grudging concessions by Congress, including health benefits and eligibility for citizenship. But it was not until 2009 that an appropriation of $198 million was provided for surviving veterans (estimated at only 18,000 at that point).
Ironically, the appropriation was just a rider in an economic stimulus package that Congress badly needed to pass to jump-start the flagging US economy. And it happened only through the dogged sponsorship of Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.
At any rate, the amount translated into one-time payments of $15,000 for those who had become US citizens and $9,000 for non-citizens, mainly residing in the Philippines.
Concerning this appropriation, a CNN news story could not have stated it more sardonically: “More than 60 years after reneging on a promise to the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who fought for the United States during World War II, the US government will soon be sending out checks — to the few who are still alive.”
But the FilAm community did not think that the one-time payment was enough rectification of the injustice. Thus, was formed the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetsREP), headed by retired Major General Antonio Taguba.
Taguba came into national prominence when he led the inquiry into the abuses committed by members of the US military in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. At the time, he was the second-highest ranking officer of Filipino descent in the US Army.
My NaFFAA co-workers, Jon Melegrito, Bing Cardenas Branigin, and Ben de Guzman, are just three of many selfless FilVetsREP volunteers keeping the flame alive for the old soldiers whose ranks are being fast depleted by the Grim Reaper.
The main objective of FilVetsREP: full honors for more than 260,000 Filipino World War II veterans, living and dead, through conferment of the Congressional Gold Medal.
It seemed like a long shot, but the advocates found allies in Sen. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, both Democrats from Hawaii. The Filipino Veterans of World War II bill sailed through the Senate and the House of Representatives and was signed into law by Obama as one of his last presidential acts in December of 2016.
On April 7, my wife, Gigi, and her sister, Lourdes Uy, will receive a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of my late father-in-law, Jose S. Nobleza, who fought the Japanese as a guerrilla captain of the Bagong Katipunan unit in Albay.
Each recipient is entitled to only one bronze replica. I suppose replicas of the replica can be made for other family members. There are excellent craftsmen in the Philippines who can do a perfect copy of anything.
My father-in-law did not live long enough to enjoy the benefits that the veterans’ advocates managed to wangle from the US Congress, but his wartime service did result in a small pension for him and a college scholarship for my wife.
The honor that the Congressional Gold Medal will give to him and his comrades-in-arms, living and dead, might well be the high point of The Second Death March.
But the journey continues.
Veterans advocates in California, led by Rudy Asersion, have succeeded in including in the official school curriculum the role played by Filipino Veterans in World War II.
The Veterans Equity Center, administered by Luisa Antonio and youth volunteers, and chaired by lawyer Lourdes Tancinco, has been providing services for the aging veterans and their families in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were among those who tirelessly lobbied Washington DC for “veterans equity.” They are also the ones organizing the April 7 awarding ceremony, aside from vetting prospective recipients.
But that is only part of their work. They and the regional chapters of FilVetsREP across the US have to raise funds to cover the cost of the bronze replicas, which will be bestowed for free to the veterans or their next of kin. It costs $52 each. The US government will only answer for the original gold medal.
FilVetsREP is trying to raise $150,000 to cover the cost of the awards presentations. Approximately $1 million will be required to fund the bronze replicas for all the recipients.
For the April 7 event, the Veterans Equity Center is trying to raise $10,000. It has managed to generate $2,000 so far in donations. My contribution of $100 was a drop in the bucket. For this reason, I have offered to help in the fund-raising effort by appealing to patriotic individuals and corporations in the Philippines.
This is the least we can do for those who laid their lives on the line for our freedom. It is a noble cause and, to be pragmatic about, it also translates into good corporate PR.
Those who would like to help can visit the FilVetsREP Web site for instructions.
On the matter of full “equity” for the Filipino veterans, this may never be realized in their lifetime nor in ours. But as long as there are those will keep the memory of the heroism of our old soldiers alive, the plaintive lyrics of that marching song will continue to resonate.
“Old soldiers never die… and they won’t fade away.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.