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A Priceless Gift

It’s a sunny day at the Capitol. The wind is calm. Autumn leaves haven’t fallen yet. In a few days, perhaps. But not today.

Today belongs to twenty-one men and women – all living Filipino veterans. They have come to the nation’s capital, the nation that once sent them to war, only to be forgotten. Of the 260,000 soldiers, 57,000 died in battle and another 9,000 perished marching from Bataan. Soon they will all fade away.

Today they come. Some in wheel chairs. Some with walking canes. And some held by the hand by a next of kin. Fragile, ailing and aging, the wounds of war have left their mark on their faces. But what scarred their soul is something deeper, more painful. A shameful act by Congress to deny them their rights, stripped them of their honor and dignity.

Slowly, they walk to Emancipation Hall. Perhaps to be freed of a bitter past by yet another act of Congress. A Congressional Gold Medal. They didn’t mind waiting another hour to enter. After all, they waited 75 years.

They have come, finally, to face the leaders of Congress, that august body that passed the Rescission Act in 1946, erasing from history the role Filipinos played in America’s victory. Speaker Ryan doesn’t say we’re sorry. He simply says “those who fought for freedom are never forgotten, and always remembered.”

But Sen. Chuck Schumer admits the U.S. “made a grievous error.” Sen. Mazie Hirono adds that “their service was practically erased from American records.”

To these living veterans, mostly in their late 90s, it was never about compensation. It’s all about remembrance and recognition, about putting it on record, about being appreciated by a grateful nation.

Ciriaco Ladines, 90, of Bowie, Maryland, is among the 21 seated in the front row, facing the Senators and Representatives. He’s been in a wheel chair for five years now, stricken with stage four cancer and weakened by two strokes. Raising his hand is difficult. As a young man, he saw action in Quezon province, where he helped unload munitions from American submarines. Lifting those heavy loads was easy then.

Later that day, his daughter, Blesilda Lim, wheels him into a room at the Ritz Carlton where award replicas are being presented. When his name is called, he readily raises his hand, surprising his daughter. “It’s like a bolt of energy entered his body,” she says. “When we got home, he couldn’t stop talking, like a dam suddenly breaks open and the stories and names of war buddies keep bursting out of his mouth. He stayed up past midnight, reliving the past. My sister and my mom just couldn’t believe how happy and alive he was.”

Christine Pabico of Manassas, VA. is honored to escort her 93-year-old grandfather, Gualberto Pumento, to the day’s events. He joined the guerrillas in Leyte, saw his comrades die, including his best friend. What stands out for Christine is “how loving he was to my grandma, always tending to her needs throughout their married life, until she passed away when she was almost 90. Her happiness has always been his happiness.”

To Christine, a “priceless gift was the opportunity to hear him share his stories throughout the week. It made me realize how there is so much about his past we did not know. I am more in awe of him now, hearing what he and his comrades went through at such a young age. I am glad that my daughter, Lauren, (Bert’s great grand-daughter) was able to be a part of this experience since this entire week has been an enduring lesson about sacrifice, courage, resilience, triumph, and fruits of perseverance.”

Both these veterans’ stories, and many others, are being collected and will be accessible someday at the Museum of American History. To make sense of the present, we need to understand the past. But first, the past must be restored, retold and remembered.

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