The act of laying a wreath at the Dambana ng Kagitingan on Mount Samat every year, on the anniversary of the Fall of Bataan, is potent with meaning. The collapse of American and Filipino defenses on the Bataan peninsula in 1942 and the horrific Death March that followed have long formed part of the national narrative; the martyrs of World War II help define our collective sense of nation.
What a pity that some of those who fought in that war continue to suffer from a second martyrdom: a benign but still insidious indifference.
We do not mean to say that the people have forgotten their sacrifices, or that the government has failed to care for their well-being. Indeed, some progress has been made.
The long struggle to have the United States acknowledge the simple fact that the Filipinos who fought in Bataan and elsewhere were technically members of the US Armed Forces in the Far East, or Usaffe, reached a major milestone when the US Congress passed the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Law; as of January, the US government had released some $224 million in compensation. Veterans who retained their Filipino citizenship received $9,000, while veterans who had acquired American citizenship received $15,000.
Also, by Philippine law, a veteran who reaches the age of 70 is deemed totally disabled; this is to allow him to avail himself of the so-called administrative disability pension, worth P1,700 a month. It is an amount separate from the veteran’s P5,000 monthly pension.
Not least, some 600 hospitals continue to serve veterans on a subsidized basis, with the subsidy increased at the beginning of the year from P800 to P1,200, per day.
These are important advances. But without wishing to belittle the amounts involved—the disability pay effectively means a 34-percent raise in the monthly pension; the 50-percent increase in hospital subsidy can be used to help buy maintenance medicine; and so on—we must also say as candidly as we can that these are not enough.
These are not enough because of the very nature of the sacrifice the veterans made, especially those who fought against the Japanese invasion and occupation. And these are not enough because the cost of keeping body and soul together for the octogenarians and nonagenarians who survived World War II are steep.
On April 9, at the wreath-laying, President Aquino said in Filipino: “We know we can never match through lavish ceremonies or floral offerings the true worth of what our veterans did. This is why, as we recall the heroism of those who showed concern or continue to show concern for our country, we care for their well-being and that of their families.”
As a country, we are fortunate that some of Bataan’s veterans are still alive. And yet the current pension and benefits structure does not do justice to our great fortune. To be sure, we cannot imagine that any of our valiant soldiers spent their time in the dugouts and foxholes counting the pension they would receive; the money and benefits in their old age are only a form of tribute to “the depth of their sacrifice made in the name of their country and their countrymen,” to borrow the President’s own words.
But is a P5,000 pension, to our war veterans, adequate tribute? We sense a kind of indifference in the arithmetic here; we are still a developing nation, we still have many leaks to plug, we still have many other priorities to fund. Where is the groundswell, the political clamor, to take much better care of our veterans?
Perhaps that is what President Aquino was referring to, when he included a challenge to all Filipinos in his April 9 remarks. “As the new generation of Filipinos, let us make a commitment: let us show that we are likewise ready to give more of ourselves to achieve meaningful change.”
Change can begin by a greater recognition, on the part of more Filipinos, that the steadily dwindling numbers of our war veterans are as much a public-interest issue as the repeated incursions of the Chinese into our exclusive economic zone, as much a national resource as the world-famous Tubbataha Reef.
Change can begin with a greater commitment to honor the veterans’ presence among us; we should not limit our praise, or express our gratitude, only on April 9.