Seventy years after the end of World War II, the Veterans Equity Center in San Francisco is taking part in a nationwide effort urging the federal government to recognize the country’s Filipino veteran population with a Congressional Gold Medal.
This effort has acquired a more urgent tone as the aged veteran population disappears.
“Time is not on our side in this campaign,” said Luisa Antonio, executive director of the Veterans Equity Center, which provides various services to the city’s Filipino veterans.
“You're going to lose a lot of veterans if you wait too long. It’s our last chance to say thank you, and 'we value your service.' And it’s America's way of saying it, too.”
The initiative, which started a year ago, was spearheaded by the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, a national education and research initiative seeking to raise national awareness about the estimated 260,000 Filipino veterans who fought for the U.S. in the war.
Antonio says California is home to about 50 percent of the remaining Filipino veterans. According to the latest estimates from the White House, there are only about 6,000 left.
The goal is to gain congressional support for the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015. HR2737 and S1555 are identical bills that seek a single gold medal to honor all Filipinos who served.
Advocates have been reaching out to those in Congress who haven’t signed on to support the legislation. So far, a combined 70 senators and representatives have co-sponsored the bills, including both Democratic senators from California, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
“To a lot of people, it means a lot,” said Antonio. “It means that the sacrifices of their grandfathers and fathers wasn't ignored.”
Felix Damil, 92, answered President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call to arms in 1946. He was assigned to the Cannon Company of the 40th Infantry Division with the New Philippine Scouts and served for three years.
He said he is proud of his service and doesn’t regret it. But he also thinks that the U.S. government should have something to show for the promises it made to Filipino soldiers decades ago.
“We do not receive any benefits from them,” said Damil. “I don’t regret [my service]. I’ve been a soldier already. And you must have to perform all your duties because you already swore to serve the U.S. government very well.”
Damil is a regular at the Veterans Equity Center, where he can receive free groceries. He says that seeing other World War II veterans there is rare now.
“I hope this congressional service medal will be approved so that it will at least enliven us who are still living, and those families of those veterans who are dead already,” said Damil. “Maybe they'll be rewarded this congressional service medal."
During the war, the United States offered incentives to Filipinos who agreed to fight under the U.S. flag. Many signed on for the possibility of full veterans benefits and even U.S. citizenship. But in 1946, President Harry S. Truman signed the Rescission Act, which took back the promise of benefits for those who had served their time on the battlefield.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that an immigration law attempted to revisit promises of naturalization for the active-duty Filipinos who served under U.S. command.
In 2009, President Obama signed a law that contained a provision that allowed the veterans, including those who are non-U.S. citizens, to apply to receive a one-time payment of $9,000 to $15,000 as reparations for their service during World War II.
“If we look at the history, the U.S. campaign (in the Pacific) would not have been successful without the Filipino WWII soldiers,” said Antonio. “But we need not just support of the Filipino community, but of mainstream America.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest expression of national appreciation honoring an individual, institution or event for an achievement or contribution. The earliest recipient was George Washington in 1776.