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District of Columbia gov’t honors Filipino World War II veterans

/ 12:53 AM October 29, 2015
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Family and friends of Filipino veterans smile at the more than one dozen photographers who snapped pictures of the historic event. PHOTOS BY JON MELEGRITO

WASHINGTON, D.C.In it’s first-ever celebration of Filipino American History Month, the Government of the District of Columbia recognized the contributions of Filipino Americans and issued a “Call to Action” urging passage of the Filipino Veterans Congressional Gold Medal bill now pending in Congress.

Attending the standing-room-only October 26 event at the Philippine Embassy were Filipino World War II veterans, DC government officials, U.S. Army and U.S. Navy officers, diplomats, community leaders, students and members of veterans’ service organizations.

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Although she was unable to participate, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser was represented by David Do, director of the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs. Do read Bowser’s Proclamation, which noted the “rich cultural heritage and the historic contributions of Filipino Americans” to the nation’s economy, culture and the Armed Forces.

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Terri Lambert, director of the Mayor’s Office on Veteran Affairs, pays a tribute to Filipino World War II veterans (from left) Celestino Almeda, Rey Cabacar and Rudy Panaglima.

In his remarks, Do said, “Tonight’s celebration is also a commemoration of the sacrifices of Filipino World War II veterans who served with dignity and honor.” He added that the presence of Filipinos, who constitute 12 percent of the city’s AAPI population, have played a significant role in the District’s economic vitality and cultural diversity.

Earlier this year, Filipino American activist Ben de Guzman received an award for “Outstanding Community Service” from Mayor Bowser. De Guzman, who works for the Diverse Elders Coalition, has been a prominent voice in the civil and gay rights movements. Do also mentioned the growing popularity of Filipino cuisine, as shown in rave reviews of Filipino American-owned restaurants that opened recently in the area.

Community salute

But the evening’s highlight was the community salute to Filipino veterans, represented by Rudy Panaglima, 85, of Arlington, Virginia; Rey Cabacar, 87, of Ft. Washington, Maryland; and Celestino Almeda, 98, of Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Accompanied by their families, the three veterans received a standing ovation when they were called to the stage by Tammi Lambert, director of the Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs. Herself an Iraq War veteran, Lambert told the audience how “passionate I am about our veterans. It’s time they receive what’s long overdue: their honor and recognition.”

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Maj. Gen. Taguba (foreground) addresses the more than one hundred attendees who came to celebrate Filipino American History Month and calls on each one of them to urge Congress to pass the Congressional Gold Medal bill.

In his keynote remarks, Ravi Chaudhary, a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, shared the story of Captain Jose Cabalfin Calugas, a Filipino soldier who saved the lives of his comrades when he risked heavy enemy fire, manned a cannon by himself and stopped the advancing enemy forces. For his action beyond and above the call of duty, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

“It’s that kind of courage that uplifts the very soul of our nation during challenging times,” Chaudhary said, describing Calugas and all the soldiers who fought as pathfinders. “That’s why we must honor them and recognize the sacrifices they made.”

Call to action

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Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, himself a son of a World War II veteran, made the call to action at the end of the ceremony. “The history of the war in the Pacific was written by U.S. Army officers,” he explained.

“We need to tell the real story of the 260,000 Filipino soldiers who were sworn under the American flag, who battled bravely and refused to surrender, who endured the Bataan Death March, who engaged in a guerilla warfare of which nothing much has been written about. They were prisoners of war, killed in action, wounded for life and, soon after liberation, humiliated and rejected by the country they served when Congress passed two rescission acts.

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Ravi Chaudhary of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders delivers the keynote message at the FAHM celebration.

“We must pass the Congressional Gold Medal Award bill now. The few remaining veterans cannot wait another year to receive that piece of paper proclaiming their service to this nation,” Taguba concluded.

In her welcome remarks, Philippine Minister and Consul Rosanna Villamor-Voogel noted that for the present generation, World War II is a war they got to know about largely from the History Channel, Hollywood movies and from books at school.

“This is understandable, as the people who lived through the war are fading, along with their stories of triumphs and suffering,” she said. “However, for the veterans and their families, the memory of the war remains a vivid backdrop against which they move on with their lives. For these heroes and their loved ones, choices and sacrifices made over years ago continue to reverberate into the present. The present generation must make a conscious choice to be aware of and to never forget the bravery of our veterans. And while we can never repay in full what the veterans had done, we hope that our pledge will be a source of comfort and inspiration for them.”

An eye-opener

Among those who came to personally meet the Filipino veterans was African American James Gillespie, an officer in the U.S. Army based in Ft. Belvoir. “This is an eye-opener for me,” he said. “I didn’t realize that of all the minority groups who served in the war, Filipino veterans have been discounted and yet to be recognized. That really concerns me. I’m going to call my senators from Kentucky first thing tomorrow.”

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Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (right) and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Vic Mercado (center) are greeted by well-wishers after the FAHM celebration. Looking on is Maj. Gen. Del Lorenzana of the Office of Veterans Affairs.

Also in the room to shake hands with the veterans was Rear Admiral Vic Mercado, one of only two Filipino Americans with the highest ranks in the U.S. Navy. “I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for our veterans,” Mercado said. “I am proud of what they did. They are indeed the greatest generation.”

Added 29-year-old Rodel Custodio, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and currently based in the Pentagon: “Learning more about our Filipino veterans tonight and their legacy of heroism and courage has inspired me immensely. We can’t just let their story fade and be forgotten. We owe it to them to keep their story alive for generations to come.”

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TAGS: Congressional Gold Medal bill Filipino WWII veterans, David Do, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, Director of the DC Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, Filipino American History Month District of Columbia, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, Maj. Gen. Del Lorenzana, Office of Veterans Affairs, President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Ravi Chaudhary, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Vic Mercado
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