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Recognized, at last!

Finally, we can proudly say: Filipino soldiers never die. Neither will they fade away. Their story is now part of American history.

It took 18 months, from the time a bill was filed in Congress to the time it was signed by President Obama. On October 25, the U.S. government will officially honor the 260,000 Filipino soldiers and guerrillas who fought under the American flag, with the formal presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal.

But, of course, it took more than 18 months. More like 72 years. That’s how long it took for the U.S. to recognize the service and sacrifice of my dad, my four uncles – Arsenio Dizon, Gil Dizon, Justino Vigilia and Romulo Villa – and their comrades. Many of them have died, waiting in vain for this day to arrive. They bore the pain of humiliation to their graves. The few thousand who are left, like my 87-year-old Uncle Arsenio, are weak and frail. But they are thankful they are still alive to personally receive a bronze replica of the medal and hear a grateful nation’s appreciation and thanks.

My Uncle, who lives in New York, will be coming to Washington DC, along with his son and daughter, to attend the congressional ceremony led by Speaker Paul Ryan. “It has really boosted his spirit,” my cousin Cindy said. “Although it’s hard for him to take the 5-hour drive, he insisted on coming and be with other living veterans.”

One of them is a 93-year-old, who’s traveling from the Philippines. Others, also in their 90s, are flying in from California, Florida, Hawaii, Texas and Washington state. We have our own Celestino Almeda of Gaithersburg, who turned 100 last June, Rey Cabacar of Oxon Hill, Rudy Panaglima of DC, Potenciano Dee of Arlington, and Justino Delara of Silver Spring. The widows of Jesse Baltazar, Joaquin Tejada, Bebeng Sandalo and Bayani Romulo will be there as well.

The solemn ceremony on October 25 – replete with color guards and a military band – is expected to be a highly emotional moment, not only for the few living veterans, but for their families. Later in the day, following the ceremony, they will personally receive bronze replicas of the Medal at a celebration banquet at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

After the formal ceremonies, the Congressional Gold Medal will be permanently housed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, complemented with a digitized education program. Imagine millions of visitors viewing this exhibit in a designated space at the Smithsonian. Perhaps for the first time, these visitors from all over the world will learn about the courage and fighting spirit of Filipino soldiers. Their story is now an American story, an important part of U.S. history.

I am both humbled and proud of the small role I’ve played in the last 25 years, walking the halls of Congress, meeting with U.S. Representatives and their staff, participating in rallies and demonstrations led by the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans (ACFV), conducting workshops and speaking at conferences, and writing about the issue of justice and equity for veterans.

I am grateful to the leadership of NaFFAA founders Alex Esclamado, Loida Nicolas Lewis and Gloria T. Caoile for their advocacy of veterans’ benefits; and to U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba for spearheading the Congressional Gold Medal campaign. And, of course, we applaud the remarkable efforts of many volunteers and generous donors who helped accomplish this historic mission.

Our next step now is to make sure we preserve their legacy by keeping their stories alive. I encourage family members to talk to living veterans, search for any written records and widely share their stories so the next generation will have a deeper appreciation of what Filipino soldiers fought for, and why.

Send your comments to jdmelegrito@gmail.com

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