Still Fighting

Filipino World War II veterans wage a decades-long battle for benefits promised to them by the US government.

February 28, 2007

AN AMERICAN FLAG and a soaring eagle stretch across the brim of Pedro Navida's black baseball cap, which he lifts above his head. On his bare forehead, framed by short-cropped hair, is a faint zigzag scar.

Navida sits on a sofa in his small second floor apartment in Elmhurst, Queens. The room is momentarily silent after his wife, Leonor, shuts off The Filipino Channel on the big-screen television. In the quiet, Leonor leans over and begins to shout across the sofa, repeating questions for him to hear. She says that sometimes he has trouble hearing and often forgets things. But suddenly, Pedro explains the scar on his forehead without hesitation.

"Bayonet," says the World War II veteran, keeping his cap braced above his head.

Navida suffered the wound fighting the Japanese army in the Philippines, his native country. Leonor says she found him with a gash in his forehead after being confronted by Japanese soldiers in Bikol, in southern Luzon-an encounter he narrowly escaped, she says. Leonor slowly nursed him back to health as the war raged on around them. Navida is one of 140,000 Filipinos who fought alongside US soldiers in World War II during a period that claimed 1.1 million Filipino lives.

And yet, 60 years after his honorable discharge from the US Army, Navida continues to petition the government for full benefits that he and his wife say were promised to them during the war. Their efforts are part of a new mobilization in New York City among Filipino veterans and their supporters, whose recent meetings in Elmhurst mark the newest front in a decades-old fight for equity.

During the past few years, politicians have recognized Filipino veterans through a series of speeches and proclamations. In 2005, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger designated October 20 "Filipino American Veterans Day" in California. President Clinton had made a similar designation in 1996 and urged all Americans "to recall the courage, sacrifice, and loyalty of Filipino veterans of World War Il and honor them for their contributions to our freedom." During a speech in 1996, Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia invoked the words of Harry Truman, who said that during the war Filipinos "fought with gallantry and courage under the most difficult circumstances."

Still, the translation of political rhetoric into concrete action remains stalled, a situation that reflects a unique history between the two countries.

"The Filipino Veterans were deprived of their naturalization rights during the war," says Reuben Seguritan, an attorney in Manhattan who has represented veterans. Seguritan notes that although US veterans from 66 different nationalities fought in the war, only those of the Philippines were denied benefits.

In 1941, President Roosevelt called the Philippine military-including guerilla groups and the newly formed Commonwealth Army-into the American Armed Forces of the Far East. At the time, the Philippines was an American territory and, upon enlistment, Filipinos were required to take a pledge of allegiance to the United States, in which they promised to serve the US military. However, at the conclusion of the war, Congress passed the Recission Act in 1946, which cut off a majority of the Filipino veterans from receiving benefits. In passing the law, Congress noted budget constraints in an uncertain post-war economy and bowed to pressure from some leaders in the new Philippine government, who feared an exodus of young veterans. But some critics see the move akin to other discriminatory laws that targeted specific Asian groups, such as Executive Order 9066, which led to the Japanese internment camps in 1942, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which denied entry and naturalization rights to most Chinese immigrants.

"Some people say that they were treated unfairly," says Seguritan. "The US received the benefits of their efforts against the Japanese. But when the dust had settled, benefits that were due Filipino veterans were denied and they were not even recognized for their contribution to America's victory in World War II."

During the 1960s and 1970s, veterans fought for naturalization rights. Courts required veterans to file their claims in person, but many were unable to make the long journey to the United States or to provide sufficient paperwork to prove their enlistment. Then, in 1990, after a series of high-profile court decisions in which Filipinos challenged the current policy, Congress passed a new law that allowed veterans to receive US citizenship. The effect was immediate. Approximately 17,000 veterans immigrated to the United States from the Philippines within a few years. Pedro Navida was one of them.

Navida first went to San Francisco, where he took his oath of citizenship. Yet soon after his arrival, he confronted an unexpected political reality: In order to pass the law, legislators had separated naturalization rights from other benefits, such as family reunification and full health care. Suddenly, Navida, like many, was faced with a dilemma: stay in the United States or return to his family in the Philippines. Additionally, he began to have heart problems, and at the time, had not yet qualified for Medicare. After only five months, Navida returned to the Philippines, where Leonor was waiting for him.

"When he came back, very sick again," remembers Leonor, who says she was surprised by his weakened appearance. "The doctor said, Oh my god! What happened to you in America? Why did you not take medicine in America?'"

Leonor pauses, then says matter-offactly, "Because he has no money."

Since then, Pedro and other veterans have acquired the right to some important benefits. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, qualifying Filipino veterans are eligible for the same medical benefits as other US veterans. And, they may also receive pension payments and military burial rights.

What remains, and what continues to be most pressing today for many of the aging veterans, is the ability to be reunited with their children from the Philippines, many of whom no longer qualify as dependents because of their adult status.

For Leonor and Pedro, even though their monthly Supplemental security Income ($504 each) is barely enough to cover expenses, the reunification with their children is what is most important to them. Leonor says she worries daily about her children in the Philippines. Last October, when a family member died she had to ask friends in Queens to help. She managed to collect $99, which she sent directly to her family.

This concern is what prompts them to navigate the busy streets of Queens on a recent Saturday morning through quicklycooling temperatures, bundled with thick hats and jackets, to join other veterans at a meeting that is part social gathering, part support group and part strategy session.

On Roosevelt Avenue, the No. 7 train rushes by in a deafening roar. The tracks, built above ground in 1917, rise over the street and cast broad shadows through the cool, crisp October air. Merengue spills onto the sidewalk from a storefront's speakers. One block north, restaurants and bodegas line the street, offering haIaI meats, 75 cent vegetable samosas, and Punjabi pop CDs to bustling Saturday crowds. Into this mix, in the heart of Queens, the Filipino veterans have carved their place. And this morning, inside a crowded McDonald's restaurant, their informal meeting over cups of coffee and warm french fries, is turning once again toward talk of pensions, trips to the Veterans Affairs, and which politician to call first.

There are 65,000 Filipinos in New York City, according to the 2005 American Community Survey. Two-thirds of the city's Filipinos live in Queens and, within the borough, Elmhurst, along with nearby Woodside, is in many ways the center of Filipino life. Filipino restaurants, banks, markets and medical offices line Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside and Newtown High School in Elmhurst has a significant Filipino population. Most of the veterans in Queens immigrated in the early 1990s, joining relatives who were already here and, in some cases, bringing family members with them.

Though their first official meeting took place last September, hosted by a local Filipino community organization, these more regular meetings feature a casual network of veterans trading phone numbers and medical advice, exchanges that continue to form the heart of their fledgling political voice.

Leonor opens a worn blue folder that reads "Department of Veterans Affairs" in large-print letters on the front. She sifts through a stack of papers, pulling out a recent news clipping that shows a group of veterans and supporters surrounding the desk of Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois as he pledges them his support. She shows it to a 76-year-old veteran who sits across the booth from her. The man, Pacifico Timbol, peers through a pair of lighttinted sunglasses at the news clipping.

"Ilan beces?" asks Timbol. How many times? There is a weariness in his voice. He describes a previous visit to a politician, during which he wore his full uniform. He says the politician saluted the veterans, calling them "heroes," and gave them warm embraces.

"Yet, still nothing," says Timbol.

Nevertheless, Timbol, who was a commander in the war and spent six months in a Japanese prison camp, continues to discuss strategy with determination. Thin and wiry, Timbol exudes a quick energy, his comments often punctuated by raspy laughter.

At one point, a veteran's widow comes by the table and drops a stack of old papers on the table. Her husband, a soldier who fought in Cebu, died in 1993, she says, and she is seeking benefits to help support her 11 children. Timbol looks the papers over as Pedro, who sits next to Leonor, folds french fries in half and dips them into the ketchup. Pedro has remained quiet and distant throughout the conversation.

"We just try," says the widow, Rosita, tentatively. "There's no harm in trying."

"Maliwanag ito," Timbol reassures her, referring to the discharge date, This Is clear. They formulate a plan to submit the papers to the Veterans Administration. Then, his eyes catch an eight-digit number on one of the papers, the husband's Army serial number.

Timbol explains that the numbers were drilled into their memory by the superior officers and, even when sleeping, the Filipinos could recite them. Suddenly, he turns to Pedro and asks him his number. Pedro snaps up in his seat.

"Ten thirty-three thirty-nineforty-nine," says Pedro in a forceful, clear voice.

Timbol erupts in laughter and Pedro grins along.

"See?" says Timbol.

Later, the two men plan a trip to the Veterans Administration hospital in Manhattan to check on an ailment of Pedro's. Leonor says she plans to visit a local advocacy group and to continue to try to get a meeting with the state senators. Their eyes are on current legislation in Congress that may, finally, allow them to be reunited with their families.

The outcome, however, may depend on the changing political climate in Washington after last fall's elections, says Satoshi Nakano, a professor at Hitotsubashi University in Japan. Nakano notes the influence of politics on the veterans' struggle for equity.

"I think Republican control of the Congress and the White House as well as the war on terror and the Iraq war definitely have affected the movement," writes Nakano in an email from Japan. Nakano has been studying the dynamics of the Filipino veteran issue for more than a decade.

"The movement has shown resilience in demanding actual benefit by Congressional actions much more than I previously expected," he writes. "So I am very interested in how the new Congress will change the situation."

There are 6,000 Filipino veterans left living in the United States, according to Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, based in Virginia. Lachica spent much of the past fall visiting with groups across the country in an effort to maintain pressure on officials to support key legislation. This civic involvement is essential, says Lachica, and yet continues to be a challenge within the Filipino community, including the new movement in Queens.

"We tend to be inward looking," says Lachica, who notes the success in other areas of the country where Filipinos are more established. He refers to Hawaii, where former Governor Ben Cayetano built strong multi-ethnic coalitions and where Senator Daniel Inouye continues to support legislation around this issue, including the family reunification bill introduced in November. Lachica's goal is to increase the pensions for low-income veterans by $200 a month, which for Pedro would mean an increase to $704. The plan, estimates Lachica, would cost $20 million for surviving veterans. This year, according to the Veterans Affairs Congressional Submission report, the agency's estimated budget for total veteran benefits will be $29.4 billion.

The November legislation once again remained in committees when the 109th Congress adjourned in December. But with a new congressional session and a shifting political landscape, Lachica's coalition and the veterans are already organizing to reintroduce both family reunification and benefits bills this Spring.

"We should be outward looking," says Lachica. "That's the key to success."

But will this success, in the form of full pension benefits and family reunification, come for veterans? And if it does, will it be in time?

Later, in their Elmhurst apartment, Leonor Navida pulls an old, faded paper from a manila envelope. It is her husband's discharge record, dated April 30, 1949.

"The best appreciation is extended to you on the occasion of your discharge from the Army of the United States," she reads in a halting, quiet voice. "Take with you into your future your knowledge, your memory of service with an historic organization and continue to bring credit to your country."

She pauses. Next to her on the sofa, Pedro listens silently.

"Signed: Major General, U.S. Army Commander," she reads.

DORIAN MERINA ("Still Fighting") is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and Jointz Magazine. He writes a monthly column on the spoken word/poetry scene in New York City for Latin Beat Magazine.

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