By Evangeline Cafe
Northwest Asian Weekly
Seattle’s Filipino community held its annual Veterans Day dinner on Saturday, Nov. 8, to pay tribute to the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Tahanan, a social services agency that provides assistance to veterans and immigrants, sponsored the event.
“We are honored to recognize those who served America in uniform past and present, at home and abroad, in war and peace,” said Tahanan President Esther Simpson.
Jeff Bungabong, a 27-year-old Iraq war veteran, was an honoree and speaker at the event. The young veteran, who had deployed to Iraq three times, said he entered into the service to find direction in his life.
“The most rewarding part of joining the Army was the fact that it made me who I am now — physically fit, mentally tough and a natural leader. I am proud of being a soldier,” he said.
In addition to honoring veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the event also paid tribute to the 200,000 Filipinos who fought for America during World War II.
Benito Valdez, 86, has vivid memories of the war, which includes the night his unit trekked through miles of jungle to storm an enemy war camp. That operation is now regarded by historians as the most daring rescue mission in U.S. military history.
“My unit participated in the Great Raid of 1945,” said Valdez.
“We helped rescue more than 500 American and Canadian soldiers who were held prisoners of war in Cabanatuan, Philippines.”
Valdez is one of three surviving members of his unit and part of a dwindling number of Filipino veterans worldwide.
Despite their heroic accomplishments, Valdez and his comrades now face a battle on a different front. They, along with members of the Filipino community, have spent the past several decades lobbying Congress for health and pension benefits promised to them more than six decades ago.
In 1941, when the Philippines were still under the control of the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Philippine Commonwealth Army into service of the U.S. Armed Forces. Thousands pledged their allegiance and fought side-by-side with American troops. Many perished in combat; hundreds more were injured.
The U.S. government had promised the Filipino troops full veterans’ benefits for their service. The Rescission Act of 1946, however, took back that promise. The legislation deemed the Filipino contribution should not be considered “active service,” which essentially stripped the Filipinos of their benefits.
To this day, thousands of veterans continue to fight for those rights.
“We are simply asking for the recognition of our services,” said Valdez.
Several bills that would have granted benefits to the Filipino veterans have been introduced in the House and Senate over the years, but none have made it to the president’s desk.
At least two pieces of legislation are currently being considered in the current Congress, but many doubt that they will come to fruition by the end of the session.
“We hope that there will be legislation approved for them at the end of December. If not, we’ll do it next year,” said Simpson.
While some remain optimistic, many supporters find the wait and stagnation unbearable.
“That day of justice is long overdue,” said community activist Celso Tolman.“They fought for freedom and democracy. The Filipino veterans are trying to get the justice they deserve,” he said.
“We were trained by the Americans. We were promised for equity. We have been waiting for so many years,” said 81-year-old Greg Cristobal. He had spent his late teens serving for the U.S. Army in Okinawa, Japan, in the mid-1940s.
Retired Maj. Urbano Quijance endured hardships including fighting in the Battle of Bataan and Corregidor, being held a prisoner of war in Camp O’Donnell, and participating in the infamous Death March.
Unlike his comrades, however, Quijance is receiving benefits since he enlisted in the U.S. military prior to the start of WWII and later retired at Fort Lewis. Quijance believes it is a travesty that the men who helped him defend the American flag are being denied equal rights.
“We all fought side by side in Bataan and Corregidor, and there should be pension,” said Quijance. He recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to mount pressure on lawmakers.
Like the young Iraq war veteran who spoke at the Veterans dinner, the Filipino WWII veterans served America with pride, courage and loyalty. As many of them approach their 90s, they can only pray that they will soon be granted the freedom and justice that they nearly died defending so many years ago. ♦
Evangeline Cafe can be reached at email@example.com.