WASHINGTON D.C. It was an emotional moment for the few, proud surviving Filipino and American veterans who fought in the Philippines during World War II who were on hand to receive the Congressional Gold Medal from House Speaker Paul Ryan at Capitol Hill’s Emancipation Hall last October 25.
The event – nearly eight decades in the making – was witnessed by the aging veterans, their family and friends, as well as a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers that included Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
The specially minted Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to Celestino Almeda representing the Philippine Army, Frank Francone for the Philippine Scouts and Aquilino Delen representing the guerilla forces.
Three women were also on hand to represent the widows and families of veterans now gone – Anita Benitez and Caroline Burkhat representing the daughters of veterans, and Margrit Baltazar on behalf of their spouses.
They were part of over 20 living Filipino and American veterans who fought in the Philippines during World War II who were eligible for the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal, per Public Law 114-265.
The awarding ceremonies were also attended by other invited guests from the U.S. Mint, Department of Defense and Philippine officials led by Charge d’Affaires Patrick Chuasoto, the most senior Philippine diplomatic officer in Washington and Philippine Defense Undersecretary for Veterans Affairs Ernesto Carolina from Manila.
The Philippine’s “Concert King” Martin Nievera was also present for a musical intermission.
Over a quarter of a million Filipinos (American citizens because the Philippines was then a United States Commonwealth) answered the call of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt to don the soldier’s uniform and defend America’s freedom and territory. Even after American military might melted from the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific, thousands of Filipinos kept fighting until they the archipelago was liberated.
However, in February 1946, the US Congress passed the Rescission Act that revoked both the US citizenship and veterans status of over 200,000 Filipino freedom fighters – the only group out of 66 other countries that fought with America during World War II, to be slapped the ignominy,
That act of Congress set in motion decades of struggle by Filipino World War II veterans for justice and recognition. Their tireless efforts, boosted by a small but dedicated corps of supporters across the US – many of them children or spouses of the veterans – lobbied Washington for benefits and recognition.
In February 2009, Pres. Obama signed a law that enacted the World War II Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation (FVEC) Fund that grants a one-time lump sum payment of $15,000 for US-based Filipino veterans and $9,000 for those in the Philippines. Some $226 million has been paid to over 19,000 Filipino and Filipino American World War II veterans.
In June 2016, the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) implemented a parole program for the veterans’ children left behind in the Philippines and caught in the massive backlog of immigrant visas for Filipinos.
They were major victories in the lobby for Filipino World War II veterans but the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal is seen as a quantum leap in the decades-long struggle. The Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the US Congress to persons “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture”.
First given in 1776 to Gen. George Washington, it’s been awarded to past presidents, generals, explorers, diplomats, athletes, artists, great thinks and America’s most courageous, including the Navajo nation’s fabled code talkers, Tuskegee airmen and Japanese American Nisei military units.
Retired US Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, chairman of the Filipino World War II Veterans Recognition & Education Project (FilVetREP) pointed out the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal was just the beginning of a fresh round of mobilization as they try to raise funds for producing enough replicas that can be given to the remaining veterans in the Philippines and US.
But even as he plots future moves, he is wont to point out that the 1946 Rescission Act that triggered all the hurt and indignation, has never been rescinded.