Sunday, January 1, 2006

The Fading Veterans: Let’s Listen to Them

While there’s still time…
Let’s Listen to Them

by Sluggo Rigor

The mortality rate of the generation that has been billed as the Greatest Generation by inspired writers of that era has now reached a critical stage. Reports from the Philippines and from cities across the United States where there are pockets of Filipino World War II veterans indicate that these old soldiers are fading away at an alarming rate of twenty per month. From what was then a conservative count of 14,000 Filipino WW II veterans who arrived in the mainland U.S. in 1990, the count is down to 6,900. Before then President George H. Bush signed into law the Immigration Act of 1990 that triggered a mini-exodus of 70-year old soldiers to the U.S., there was a total count of 55,000 still-living war veterans residing in various parts of the Philippines. Military sources say that reliable data can only be ascertained by official documents of the United States Armed Forces in the Philippines (USAFIP) and the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) that are securely filed in the U.S. Military Archives in St. Louis, Missouri. Philippine military historians estimate that there were 230,000 Filipino soldiers who fought on the side of the G.I. Joes against the Japanese in the last world war.

From the estimated 14,000 that had elected American citizenship and had come to the U.S. under the 1990 immigration law, more than one-half have passed away and others have returned to the homeland. Many had hoped to be part of a concerted campaign to lobby for the Equity Bill, an initiative in the U.S. Congress that would erase the painful provisions of the Rescission Act of 1946. That single act signed into law by then President Harry Truman took away service benefits promised the Filipinos when they were enlisted to fight the enemy. Frustrated and angry these aging soldiers, who are now U.S. citizens, accepted what they consider “dole out” civilian money through Social Security ranging from $220 to $300 a month. After securing the meager amount, many returned home to live out their final days there.

At the International Drop-In Center (IDIC) in South Seattle where most of these old soldiers congregate as members, they recount heart-rending tales.

Greg Garcia is in his early 80s. He fought in the infamous battle of Bessang Pass where the feared Tiger of Malaya, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, had surrendered to Filipino bolo men led by young ROTC-trained officers. Garcia lives with his wife Rosing in a tiny apartment in Seattle’s International District. Like other veterans who had elected American citizenship fifteen years ago, Garcia patiently waits for his children to join them in the U.S.

“I have filed petitions 14 years ago but it is a slow, agonizing process…and we are growing old,” Garcia recounts. He adds that he often checks on his children via overseas calls. “My wife and I realize how hard life has become economically for our children in the Philippines. Through helplessness and tears, we can only pray.” It is a typical fragmented-family-story of Filipino war veterans who arrived in the U.S. in 1990.

At an average of seventy-five years old when they came---culture-shocked, hardly able to express themselves in American English and practically without any safety net---they were not even employable. They have yearned for their immediate family members, their main support system, to join them. But, alas, the 1990 Immigration Law is quite specific: citizenship is granted only to the aging soldier and does not include even his spouse. When petition rules required them to produce affidavits-of-support, they were shocked and frustrated because their only means of livelihood is the measly sum from Social Security. Many have dropped the idea of petitioning their immediate families especially when filing fees keep rising. It now costs $390 per person. Computing the budget needed to bring over a family member—including re-settlement in the U.S.---a frustrated veteran cried, “How in the world can we afford that?” Meanwhile, their children place calls on week-ends tearfully asking: “Itay…when can we join you there?”

A case that begs for attention and compassion is that of a genuine Filipino World War II hero, retired USSAFE Lt. Benito Valdez of Nueva Ecija. He is one of only three living Filipino soldiers residing in the U.S. who had figured in the most daring rescue operation during the war to free 600 American and Canadian prisoners of war from an enemy garrison in Cabanatuan, a Central Luzon province. A full-length movie, “The Great Raid,” was recently made by Miramar Films depicting the drama of the heroic episode that Valdez’s unit helped to carry out. Now in his late 80s, Valdez is sickly, having gone through a heart operation recently. His situation, sympathetic comrades say, is a case of monumental irony.

Reserved and not given to talking unless asked, Valdez says this about his dilemma: “I see entire families of refugees from other countries afforded free passage and resettlement programs and I cannot help but compare our situation with them. We who risked all for this country have been forgotten,” Valdez laments. What the aging hero hopes for is that a benefactor in U.S. federal or state government can come forward to find a way how he could have his immediate family rejoin him in Seattle. A daughter, Flor, who has been in Seattle for the past two years under a visitor’s visa that expires in a few weeks, is Lt. Valdez’s main support. “When she leaves, I do not know how I can carry on,” the old soldier murmurs. A widower, Valdez has filed petitions for his children to come to America. He has been waiting for the last fourteen years.

After a series of meetings with state officials at the IDIC and courtesy calls on State Senator Margarita Prentice, Lt. Governor Brad Owen, Veterans Administration Office Director John Lee, the ever helpful Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) Executive Director Ellen Abellera, and high-ranking officials of both Democratic and Republican parties, Governor Christine Gregoire has taken interest in the compelling cases of the aging Filipino soldiers of Washington state. Mainly due to the tireless work of CAPAA, a survey of Filipino war veterans residing in the state may now be possible.

In other meetings conducted in past months to identify the needs of marginalized veterans, it has been determined that there are different varieties of war veterans among Filipinos in the U.S. The Philippine Scouts, retired Navy, Army, Coast Guards, Marines and veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars all fall under distinctly separate categories. It is the aging Filipino soldier of WW II who came to this country on or after 1990 that must be identified, his current situation verified and recorded. Their association, the Filipino War Veterans of Washington (FWVW), was organized in the mid-90s for their own common interest.

Six decades have passed since the Filipino soldier had begun fighting for the passage of the Equity Bill in the U.S. Congress. Passage would restore rightful benefits denied him after fighting a war that was not his. But one that he had helped win. Many veterans in Seattle want the Equity Bill to be passed but, collectively, they believe that it will never be within their lifetime. This dim view is emotionally expressed by former FWVW Commander Julio Joaquin: “This country is at war and funds for old soldiers are not the priority of government!” Pessimistic as it sounds, Joaquin echoes what is in the minds of silently suffering veterans.

Officials of the IDIC have supported the veterans’ desire to “do something practical, reasonable and viable” if only to prove a point to Uncle Sam. An initiative started in Seattle by the veterans and their advocates called the Filipino Veterans’ Family Re-unification Program appeals to a broad field when explained in its proper context.

In the final analysis, it is imperative that we seize the limited time these old warriors of freedom have. This writer remembers his own father, a war veteran himself who fought at Bessang Pass in North Luzon. He had been the first Secretary General of the Veterans Federation of the Philippines (VFP), the umbrella organization of all recognized veterans’ groups. I used to read his files, journals and interesting after-battle reports.

Having had the privilege and opportunity to be exposed to veterans practically all my life, I urge the younger generation of Filipinos in America to consider doing the following:

1. Ask state and federal legislators through major Filipino advocacy organizations to pass a law that would not nullify the petitions of war veterans for their immediate families even if they should pass away.

2. Granting that such a compelling law is enacted, Filipino veterans in the U.S. today live on marginal income and may not be able to afford sending for those they petition. A program in each locality in the U.S. to meet this contingency must be drawn up.

3. Ask for federal legislation that would separate the veterans’ family petitions from ordinary petitioners in order to accelerate their visa processing. The petitioners are aging fast and they need a support system that their families can supply. Each veteran, after all, deserves whatever accelerated benefits Uncle Sam can offer at this late stage.

4. Ask that federal legislation be enacted for the veterans so that even if they pass away, the benefits due them under the long-pending Equity Bill can go to their immediate families.

5. Mount a lobby addressed to the Philippine government to once and for all review, audit and update the roster of World War II veterans and recognized guerillas. The VFP had long noted this as a vulnerable point because it is easily tampered with. Uncle Sam will not negotiate with a questionable roster. Let us nag the Veterans Affairs Office in the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC to study and compare the Philippine List to official files in the archives of St. Louis, Missouri.

6. Whatever we do in the U.S. for the veterans who are now American citizens, let us not overlook their counterparts in the Philippines. They, too, need all the help they can get. Public awareness about the plight of all aging Filipino veterans, wherever they are today, must be kept high.
As a veteran’s son, I share this acquired teaching: That it would be a shame, a massive issue of conscience, if our generation fails to grasp the sad truth about the injustice done to a generation of heroes. If we care enough, their cause must be ours, too. While there is time, let us talk to all aging Filipino soldiers within reach. Let us better understand what they want at this stage in their lives. Before they fade away, perhaps we can do something worthwhile for them and for those they love.