This story appeared originally in Philippine News and was produced as part of New America Media’s Stimulus Watch coverage. It was funded with a grant from the Open Society Institute. Republished here with permission.
WASHINGTON D.C. — It felt like winning the lottery, mused Alberto Bacani, 99. Two months after the economic stimulus package became law in February 2009, he got a check for $15,000, making him the first Filipino veteran to be compensated for his service in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II.
“It was the day before Bataan Day,” recalled Bacani, who was held by the Japanese as a POW during the war.
He got an invitation to attend an April 8, 2009 ceremony commemorating the Bataan Death March of 1942, where the Japanese Imperial Army beat and tortured thousands of Filipino and American troops who had surrendered after months of fighting in the Bataan peninsula north of Manila. Bacani came to the U.S. in 1976, working initially as a bookkeeper at a travel agency. Prior to retirement, he was a librarian at the Environmental Protection Agency office in Virginia.
“They told me I have been chosen to be given the first check because all my records were complete,” he narrated from a sharp memory that recalled every detail. “I made sure I wore a nice suit.”
Before a small crowd of Philippine embassy officials, community leaders and fellow veterans, he received a check from retired Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba, who represented Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. No member of his family could attend the ceremony at the Chancery in Washington. His children were at work and his wife Saturnina was in a hospital.
Fellow veterans Celestino Almeda, 92, and Franco Arcebal, 86, aren’t as lucky as Bacani, a dignified-looking man who is partially deaf but remains cheerful in his advancing age. Like Bacani, they promptly filed their payment claims shortly after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was signed into law on February 13, 2009. Recently, Almeda –who served in the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East from 1941 to 1946– received a denial letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“They told me not to contact the VA. That if they need something, they will contact me,” he said quoting from the letter. The VA did contact him a week later to let him know his document is incomplete and that the VA needed Form E23, or a certificate of discharge from the Philippine Army.
“I called my granddaughter in the Philippines to follow up with the Army,” he told this reporter, speaking in a slightly muffled voice. He said he is suffering from pneumonia and walks around with an oxygen tube to help him breathe easier.
How the question of Filipino veterans’ equity intersected with the biggest bailout package since the Great Depression –the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or ARRA– is a story that is as inspiring as it is baffling. Hearing it told by the veterans today makes for invaluable oral history.
The struggle for recognition spans six decades beginning in the aftermath of the Second World War. In 1946, President Harry Truman signed the Rescission Act and erased everything that Filipino veterans had hoped to gain for themselves and their families. It eliminated all the benefits the U.S. government had promised the Filipinos who volunteered to fight under the Commonwealth Army of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Filipino recruits –numbering anywhere from 200,000 to 470,000– were promised a bundle of incentives, including American citizenship.
According to Senator Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) the rescission law “denies Filipino veterans access to health care and pension benefits.” The law also limits service-connected disability and death compensation to 50 percent of that received by American veterans.
What turned out to be particularly degrading is that the law withheld recognition for the veterans’ combat service. It dismissed their sacrifices and their torture at the hands of the Japanese as if they never happened. Turning them into non-entities deepened the humiliation for the veterans who wanted nothing more than to be treated with respect. The law states that the combat service performed by the Filipinos was “not deemed to have been active military, naval, or air service.” As a result, Filipino soldiers under the Commonwealth forces were not entitled to any “rights, privileges or benefits.”
Truly a “dark chapter in history,” said retired Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus, chief of the Philippine Embassy’s Office of Veterans Affairs.
ADVOCATES IN TRAINING
In the 1980s to 1990s, Filipino American veterans began to aggressively organize with the support of the community. They marched on Congress, held meetings with lawmakers and spoke at congressional hearings. Franco Arcebal was briefly jailed in 1997 after he and about 15 others chained themselves to a fence near the White House to call attention to what they felt was the U.S. government’s attitude of imperiousness and indifference. They were hauled to a nearby jail, fingerprinted, and later released after paying a $50 fine. What they didn’t bargain for was maximum TV exposure. Imagine a group of elderly veterans –some in wheelchairs and canes– being led to a police van in dramatic news footage.
Recalling the incident made Arcebal laugh. The jail time was nothing, he said, compared to his wartime incarceration for being a guerrilla intelligence officer for the Americans.
“I was tortured and jailed and sentenced to be beheaded, but I was able to escape,” he said, his voice turning serious. “And now, they don’t want to recognize my service?”
Tucked in page 86 of the 406-page, $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a little-known feature called the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation (FVEC) providing $198 million in equity compensation for 18,000 Filipino veterans.
Franco Arcebal and his fellow veterans celebrated, thinking they would finally receive the benefits they were promised 60 years earlier. However, as this series shows, the new law did not represent a complete victory, but only a passage into the next phase of struggle.