Injustice made right
US President Barack Obama will be remembered for many things—good or bad, depending on which side of the political fence one stands. The cornerstone initiatives of his administration, such as the Affordable Care Act, the push for same-sex marriage, and the recognition of the urgency of climate change, certainly make his political legacy a matter of fierce political debate for years to come, especially now that the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump has indicated it would attempt to undo many of his accomplishments.
But for the dwindling band of Filipino veterans of World War II and their families, Obama will be remembered for one thing: as the US president who finally gave official recognition to the participation of 260,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in the allied forces’ war with Japan in the Pacific. That recognition came by way of Senate Bill No. 1555, or the “Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015,” which Obama signed last week. The award bestows a congressional gold medal—“the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions in the United States,” according to the Philippine Embassy in Washington—collectively to 260,000 Filipino veterans in honor of their dedicated service and sacrifices during World War II.
This is not just a long overdue recognition but also an injustice made right. For 75 years, Filipino veterans have been denied the honor and the benefits due them as soldiers who fought under the American flag, in answer to then US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s call for volunteers in its colony in the Pacific to fight alongside America and its allied forces—only for the US government to turn its back on these Filipino soldiers once the war was over.
An odious law called the Rescission Act of 1946 officially categorized the Filipino veterans’ participation as inactive service and denied them any veterans’ benefits. Many of these soldiers endured the worst, most horrific aspects of the war—the Fall of Bataan and the resulting Death March, the carnage of the Liberation of Manila. Many of them, callow youth in their time but made men overnight by the call to arms, still carry the scars of, and in some cases wayward shrapnel from, that long-ago war. None of them would have imagined that they still needed to battle for official recognition of their heroism and valor afterwards, much less that the fight would turn out to be far longer, more crushing and bitter.
In 2009, the US Congress made a gesture of belated amends by giving a lump-sum payment of $15,000 to Filipino-American veterans, and $9,000 to veterans who remained Filipino citizens. But, as NBC News reported in November 2014, “survivors and families complain that the Department of Veterans Affairs refuses to make the verification process easy for the Filipino vets,” with payments denied those “whose identification and evidence of service have been deemed inadequate.”
Another bill pending in the US Congress, the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act, is meant to further strengthen the Filipino veterans’ case by allowing them full access to the benefits programs provided by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. That bill, like others before it, will certainly take its time to be considered, let alone passed and signed into law. For now, Obama’s signature on the “Congressional Medal Act of 2015” goes the farthest in righting the monumental wrong that was done to Filipino veterans.
From 260,000 men, these band of heroes are sadly now down to around 15,000, and many are in the evening of their lives. However belated, this recognition is, as the Philippine Embassy in Washington hailed it, “a fitting tribute to [their] sacrifice, courage, and strength. From ordinary civilians to defenders of free nations, these men and women deserve our deepest respect and gratitude.”
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