Obama courts Fil-Ams
LOS ANGELES—US President Barack Obama’s administration on Thursday created a working group to look into the plight of Filipino veterans whose claims for benefits from their World War II service have been denied.
The group will “ensure that all applications receive thorough and fair review,” said presidential assistant Chris Lu, co-chairman of the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
The White House announcement comes ahead of the November 6 national elections in which experts say that Asian-Americans—who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008—could play a decisive role in close races.
More than 250,000 Filipinos fought for the United States during the war and were promised equal treatment as American veterans after the war.
But in 1946, the US Congress enacted the Rescission Act that took away full recognition of the Filipinos and stripped them of their benefits, leaving bitterness in the former colony and decades of campaigning to change US policy.
Weeks after Obama took office in 2009, Congress approved a stimulus package that included one-time payments of $15,000 to Filipino veterans in the United States and $9,000 to those living in the Philippines.
Lu said that 18,000 claims had been approved.
“However, we also have heard from many Filipino veterans who have been impeded from filing claims or believe their claims were improperly denied,” Lu wrote on a White House blog.
PH records not accepted
Lu said the Pentagon, Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Archives and Record Administration were setting up a working group to assess the issue.
“This is part of the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to honor the contributions of all veterans in their service to our country,” he said.
Community advocates said thousands of veterans had their claims denied, usually because US authorities did not accept records from the Philippines which were the former fighters’ sole means to prove their service.
Some aging veterans also said it was unrealistic to file their claims in time for the Feb. 16, 2010, deadline.
Promise should be kept
Democratic Representative Jackie Speier, whose California district has a large Asian-American community, welcomed the latest administration effort, but said that Congress needed to do more and give Filipino veterans the same benefits that others enjoyed.
“Filipinos were American nationals when they fought in the war and they were promised full benefits by President Franklin D. Roosevelt,” she said in a statement.
“A promise made should be a promise kept. We have broken our promise and it’s time to make amends,” she said.
24k denied compensation
Advocates for Fil-Am veterans said more than 24,000 veterans were denied compensation and that the existing programs did not provide adequate coverage in many areas.
The disqualified veterans constitute 56 percent of the 43,083 surviving veterans who filed their claims under the compensation fund, according to retired Major General Delfin Lorenzana, head of the Office of Veterans Affairs at the Philippine Embassy.
He said the US government had so far released $223.7 million to 18,698 Filipino veterans from the $265-million compensation fund.
Lorenzana said the disqualification issue stemmed from the implementing guidelines issued in 2011. The guidelines require certification from the National Personnel Records Center that the names of veteran-claimants appear in both the Roster of Troops and the Discharge List prepared by the US Army at the end of the war.
“Unfortunately, the claims of a large number of Filipino veterans were not processed because their names appear only on one list or the other but not both,” Lorenzana said in a statement released by the US Embassy. “What we are requesting the US government is for them to consider all sources of records and not just the two lists.
Lu acknowledged receiving complaints from the Filipino veterans “who have been impeded from filing claims or believe their claims were improperly denied.”
He said the working group was created to address the issue.
Obama efforts welcomed
Fil-Am community leaders and the Philippine Embassy welcomed the Obama administration’s efforts to help the veterans.
Art Garcia, national coordinator of the Los Angeles-based Justice for Filipino American Veterans (JFAV), praised the initiative as a “significant step to correct an injustice.”
He said this effort was in stark contrast with the “rejection” they received from Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, who denied their request for a hearing on a bill that would expand eligibility for veterans’ benefits.
Garcia said he had received a call from Lu’s office asking him and other leaders of veterans’ groups to participate in a dialogue with the newly created interagency body.
“Thank you, President Obama,” Cerritos Council Member Mark Pulido posted on Facebook. Pulido said his post was “in remembrance” of his grandfathers, WWII veterans Jose Pulido and Alfredo Lagmay, and all those who fought during the war.
Full, not half, benefits
Philippine Ambassador Jose Cuisia Jr. thanked Lu for acting on the concerns of the veterans.
“We would like to assure our veterans that the Philippine government will continue to exert strong efforts to convince US authorities to address the certification issue and grant them the benefits they deserve,” Cuisia said.
Speier said: “Congress needs to act to ensure that Filipino World War II veterans and their families are entitled to full benefits and compensation for their service, not the negotiated half-settlement currently afforded to them.”
Speier was author of the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2011, which would make the Filipino veterans fully eligible to benefits received by all US veterans.—With a report from AFP