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  By Roderick Sasis

Freedom and Justice for All?
Filipino American Veterans "Served but Don't Deserve"

When the radio blurted a plea from President Roosevelt for all Filipinos to join the fight against fascism and Japanese aggression, he felt the need to uphold the American values of freedom and democracy instilled in him while growing up in the Philippines. He wanted to be a soldier. Just like other Americans, he put his life on hold and joined the U.S. Army to protect his nation.

After relentless bombing by the Japanese, Bataan surrendered on April 9, 1994. He became a Prisoner of War and along with other was detained in make-shift barbed wire confines while forced to march during the day. The prisoners suffered from food and water deprivation, as well as the torturing effects of the heat and humidity of the tropical summer. Consumed with fright, the 22-year-old soldier witnessed comrades die of thirst or from the piercing metal of the enemies' bayonets when some attempted to flee. Fear of death alone motivated him to continue his plight as more and more corpses littered the 90-mile trek from Bataan to Pampanga.

As the solider and his comrades reached Pampanga, more atrocities awaited as the Japanese herded them like animals into concentration camps. Hunger and thirst gnawed his stomach as his will to survive grew weaker and weaker as each day passed. His daily rations consisted of rice sprinkled with water and a cup of water. The solider wore the same clothes for months and was not allowed to wash. Swarms of mosquitoes attacked with impunity at night to continue the torture. The horrendous conditions caused malaria, dysentery, and other ailments. The soldier became disillusioned with life as one by one his comrades in battle became ill from malnourishment and disease. Tens, then hundreds, died each day.

The soldier suffered and persevered for six months along with thousand of others. One would assume that these individuals who fought under the American flag would be highly decorated at the end of the war. This is a wrong assumption. He was but one of the many invisible Filipino men in World War II whose accomplishments went unnoticed. The solider received nothing for his services. He wasn't honored like other veterans, much less treated as a human being, despite the blood he shed, despite the courage he displayed in such extraordinary circumstances, despite his attempt to protect the democratic goals of America. Even though he fought side by side with Americans, he was no longer their equal after the war. He was no longer judged by his military valor, but by the color of his skin.

On July 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a military order which mobilized the Philippine Commonwealth Army and Old Philippine Scouts under the U.S. Armed Forces. This order stemmed from U.S. sovereignty over the Philippines, even after the passage of the Philippine Independence Act of 1934. The Act provided a ten-year transitional period for the Philippines to acquire full independence from the U.S. while allowing the Philippines management over some of its internal affairs. However, the United States still maintained its authority over the Commonwealth, such as its authority to maintain U.S. military and armed forces in the Philippines and upon order of the President, to call to the service of the U.S. Armed Forces all military forces organized by the Philippines government. Roosevelt used this authority to call into service 200,000 to 300,000 Filipino men to defend the Philippine Commonwealth and the U.S.

Instead of honoring the services of those Filipino who survived torture and others who died to ensure the freedom of both the U.S. and the Philippines, on February 18, 1946, the 79th Congress of the U.S. passed the Rescission Act of 1945 which denied rights and benefits to members of the Philippines Commonwealth Army because their activities were not considered active service under the U.S. Armed Forces.

"Filipinos were promised benefits, and the Rescission Act took away those rights. I feel stabbed in the back. It's like saying that my experiences in the concentration camps were not worth a damn," said 74-year-old Peping Baclid, a former Filipino prisoner-of-war and survivor of the Bataan Death March.

The Rescission Act did award disability and death benefits on the basis of one Filipino peso for each dollar authorized, yet denied benefits for those who were lucky to survive torture and extraordinary conditions.

Today, most of the 70,000 surviving Filipino veterans are forced to live on SSI (Supplemental Security Income), Food Stamps, and Medicaid and die without V.A. burial benefits. For 51 years, these veterans have waited, asked, and demanded eligibility for full veterans' benefits, but have been denied. Many left their families and immigrated to the U.S. and became naturalized citizens to fight for their rights. Some have become disillusioned with not only the situation but also with America. Many yearn to go back to the Philippines to escape such blatant acts of discrimination.

"I am alone in San Diego. My family here consists of my fellow Filipino veterans who I live with. I am getting too old. I just want to get my benefits and return to the Philippines, for the last few years of my life," said 79-year-old Evaristo Edguido, a Filipino former prisoner-of-war who also survived the Bataan Death March.

Filipino veterans, though, have refused to be complacent. Their voices needed to be heard. Challenges to the constitutionality of the Rescission Act of 1946 have reached all the way to the Supreme Court in the cases of Harris v. Rosario and Califano v. Torres. The Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Rescission Act due to three factors: the U.S. never imposed taxes on the Philippines, annual benefits to Filipino veterans are too costly and would reach two billion dollars per year, and the full payment of benefits to Filipino veterans could disrupt the Philippines economy due to the exchange rate from dollars to Filipino pesos.

Today, the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill (H.R. 836), cosponsored and introduced by Representative Bob Filner from San Diego, is waiting for a hearing in the House Veterans Affairs Committee. It would provide the veterans and their families compensation for their services, but most importantly, it would restore the respect and justice taken away from them 50 years ago.

"It's not about the money. It's about justice, about human dignity, about human rights," said 80-year-old Germinio Delaliana, former prisoner-of-war and survivor of the Bataan Death March.

Currently, there are 11 cosponsors in the Senate and 176 in the House, including some of Congress' most notable members such as Senator Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY). Forty more Senators and 42 more Congressmen need to cosponsor the legislation. However, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Stump and other Republicans are blocking the Equity Bill from a vote.

Demonstrations by Filipino veterans supporters have been held from Los Angeles to Maryland. In L.A., veterans staged a hunger strike and a round-the-clock vigil at "Equity Village" in MacArthur Park, named after their World War II military leader. This past Veteran's Day, a march and rally were held that culminated on the steps of L.A. City Hall, while in Maryland a dozen Filipino veterans, as pallbearers, carried the black coffin of their "fallen comrades" to the gates of Arlington National Cemetery to catch President Clinton's attention.

Why should this issue be so important to Filipino Americans today, especially the youth? Why is it important to me?

The 22-year-old soldier I described in the beginning of this article is Gregorio E'janda, my "lolo," my grandfather, a personal hero -- but just another invisible pawn in the eyes of the U.S. government. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in his native town of Masinloc in the province of Zambales, knowing full well that he might never return. He fought to ensure that his family and his descendants would enjoy freedom, as did the rest of the Filipino veterans. They sacrificed their blood and their lives, and now the U.S. government is refusing to acknowledge them and deems them to have been "inactive" participants in the war.

We owe the Filipino veterans -- men we can all consider our "lolos" -- "utang ng loob," a debt of gratitude. Five Filipino veterans die each day out of the 70,000 still alive while waiting to receive recognition for their services. We, especially the youth, cannot forget their achievements to ensure the freedom that their children (our mothers and fathers) enjoy.

The veterans are in the twilight of their lives, while we have just begun. It is our responsibility to join in their struggle because their issues are our own. The U.S. government's discriminatory policies toward the Filipino veterans have direct ramifications upon our community. Unless we take action, we are always going to be considered "second-class" citizens, or hyphenated Americans. It is up to us to fight for equality, not just for our elders but for ourselves and our future generations as well.

It is time to take back what we rightly deserve.

(Roderick Sasis is a sophomore at UCLA.)