Fil-Am WWI veterans march for recognition

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 11 marked the United States’ official day to honor its war veterans, alive and deceased, for their faithful service to country. But on Hollywood Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in Los Angeles, it was a different story.

Hundreds of protestors, mainly university students from all over the Southern California region, joined with aging Filipino veterans for a yearly march and rally, organized by Justice for Filipino-American Veterans (JFAV).

JFAV is a national alliance of organizations, which advocates for the rights and equality for Fil-Am World War II veterans.

“We have been marching for the past 22 years, and we will not stop until we get justice and equity for our freedom fighters,” said Arturo Garcia, national coordinator for JFAV.

Over 250,000 Filipinos signed up to fight for the US during World War II, and were promised equal treatment as American veterans after the war. However, the Rescission Act enacted in 1946 by President Harry Truman took away full recognition of their participation in the war, stripping thousands of Filipino vets of their rightful benefits.

In 2009, Congress approved the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Act, a stimulus package that included one-time lump sum payments of $15,000 to Fil-Am veterans in the US, and $9,000 to those living in the Philippines, reported Inquirer. However, thousands of veterans had their claims denied, mainly because US authorities did not accept records from the Philippines, the only way veterans could prove their service in the war.

Today, the White House estimates around 6,000 veterans still alive in the US.

“I have done my service, I am a veteran, and I believe in the spirit of justice,” 91-year-old Artemio Caleda, who fought bravely in WWII, told NBC News. Despite Caleda’s verifiable documents that recognize his service, the Department of Veterans Affairs has denied his claims for pay restoration and benefits stripped from the Rescission Act.

“Nothing has been received, we are still waiting. Until the end, I’ll be here, walking on this street right here in Hollywood,” added war veteran John Aspiras, 84.

The importance of the Filipino war effort was apparent when Japanese occupation troops forced American General Douglas McArthur to flee to Australia. Filipinos battled side-by-side with the remaining US troops kept up the fight in the Philippines.

“The order of President Roosevelt is very clear: when we were drafted into the US Army, we would be compensated just like American soldiers,” Caleda recalled.

So far, of the more than 250,000 Filipinos who faithfully served, only 18,000 have been officially recognized and deemed eligible for the lump sum payments approved by the Equity Compensation Act. Other vets have been granted US citizenship and some health benefits, but denied the equity payment.

Attrition rates among the aging veteran community is also the prime reason the vast majority have seen little to no benefits–the laborious file-work and political cases have simply outlived many of them.

Among the benefits advocated by JFAV include full recognition of wartime services, a non-taxable lump sum under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a Survivors Pension (Death Pension) for widows and children, a working visa to expedite the process of reuniting families, and overall progress in Congress for the Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2015, which would reconcile all benefits stripped in 1946.

“I will continue [to fight] until I get what I deserve,” said 98-year-old Celestino Almeda, the leader of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, which continues to meet with Washington officials for justice.

Among the 60+ organizations present at the 15th annual JFAV March included API Equality-LA, AF3IRM, Alliance Philippines, Kasama Filipino American Students Organization, Kabataang maka-Bayan (KmB) / Pro-People Youth, Filipino American Service Group, Inc. (FASGI), People’s CORE, and the Pilipino Workers Center (PWC).

PWC’s Executive Director Aquilina Soriano-Verzosa gave the opening speech at the rally, along with statements from Doug Kaufman of ANSWER-LA, FASGI director Bernie Ganon, and A3FIRM national leader Jollene Levid. The rally also included a special performance from Filipino rap artist and war veteran BAMBU.

Hundreds of university students came out to march on their day off from classes, holding signs, chanting, and showing their support for the years-long cause.

“It’s important for students to advocate for minority communities,” said UCLA student Andrew Esguerra, the community projects coordinator for UCLA’s Samahang Pilipino group. “Even if it doesn’t affect you personally, it affects your community, and you have to come out for that.”

Students also did a 69-second die-in in front of the CNN building, representing the 69 years since the Rescission Act was passed.

“We essentially came out to raise awareness for the lack of benefits that Filipino veterans received for their service in World War II,” said UCLA neuroscience student Claire Garcia, who performed the Filipino national anthem with her choir group, Tinig Choral. “I think that even though this event is in regards to an issue that happened many years ago, it’s still extremely important to get the Fil-Am veterans the benefits and recognition they deserve. It’s not right for them to have their service forgotten as time goes on.”

In July of this year, President Obama announced a new policy that will allow certain eligible family members of Fil-Am vets to seek parole, under a new program by the Department of Homeland Security. That policy is still waiting to be implemented.

“We have been marching for the last 22 years against systemic racism and racial discrimination,” added Art Garcia. “We will continue to march for equity and justice, and we will not stop until we get [this] for our Lolos and Lolas, and for the Fil-Am community.” (Allyson Escobar / AJPress)

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