By Audrey McAvoy
The Associated Press
WAIPAHU, Hawaii (AP) — Gaudencio Sotio injured his left leg fighting to expel the Japanese military from the Philippines during World War II. Though Filipino, he was fighting under the command of the United States, which had colonized his homeland in the early 1900s.
Last February, the United States said it would pay a lump sum — $9,000 or $15,000 — to veterans like Sotio in lieu of pensions it had promised Filipino soldiers during the war but reneged on paying.
Since then, more than 11,000 surviving veterans now in their 80s and 90s received this much delayed monetary recognition of their service and sacrifice. But thousands of others are still waiting to receive their money as the federal government wades through a backlog of applications.
This bureaucracy moved too slowly for Sotio, who died on Jan. 10. The 84-year-old applied for his benefit on Feb. 20 — almost 11 months ago — just days after the law authorizing the funds went into effect. His death came before the Department of Veterans Affairs was able to rule on his claim.
“My husband said, ‘If the others are receiving, maybe I’m going to receive too,’” said Norma Sotio, his widow, as tears welled in her eyes. “It’s been one year already.”
Part of the problem is that 40,000 people applied for the benefit when the VA had been expecting only half that number.
To cope, the VA added seven additional claims processors to its Manila field office.
The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which has more than a century of documents for military servicemen and women, has also increased its staff to deal with the claims, and is now handling 800 lump sum payment queries a week, or twice as many as when the program started.
The VA expects these changes will allow it to plow through the existing application pile in about 10 weeks.
“We are committed to delivering these benefits in a compassionate and timely manner,” said Willie Clark, the Western area director for the field operations office.
Ineligible applications may be slowing claims processing. The department has so far had to deny nearly 8,000 claims, mostly from people who hadn’t served. Some were from veteran widows, children, and other next of kin who aren’t eligible. Some people filed more than one application.
Some 16,000 claims are still being reviewed.
The wait has frustrated veterans who have already spent most of their lives pushing the government to fulfill its promises.
“The long delay is justice denied. That’s the saying. It’s really true — it’s an injustice somehow,” said Art Caleda, president of the Hawaii chapter of World War II Filipino-American Veterans.
About 400 applicants are in Hawaii, which has a large Filipino-American population. Most — or 65 percent — have been paid while 15 percent were denied. About 20 percent of the Hawaii claims are still pending, like Sotio’s.
“There are veterans who were able to file their application claims but then they died. What is the use of that?” said Caleda. “They’re not only frustrated, they are dying you know. They’re dying.”
More than 250,000 Filipinos served alongside U.S. soldiers to defend the Philippines from the 1941 Japanese invasion. They formed the resistance during the subsequent Japanese occupation.
The U.S. military assured Filipinos they would be able to apply for U.S. citizenship and qualify for full U.S. veterans’ benefits if they served. But one year after Japan’s surrender, the Rescission Act of 1946 declared that Filipinos were not in active service for the U.S. military during the war.
This stripped Filipinos of their status as U.S. veterans and denied them the benefits they were promised.
The veterans pushed for years to win back these benefits. Success came slowly and in bits. In 1990, Congress passed a bill allowing thousands to immigrate and become U.S. citizens. A decade later, the U.S. recognized the right of the veterans to be buried in national cemeteries.
Congress considered legislation authorizing pensions to Filipino veterans several times over the years. It finally settled on the lump sum solution when it included $198 million for the program in last year’s economic stimulus bill.
The VA has distributed $136 million, or more than two-thirds of the money, to date. It’s prepared to ask lawmakers for additional funds if it appears it will exhaust the allocated amount. Veterans have until Feb. 16 to file.
Norma Sotio keeps a copy of her husband’s application in their small apartment in an elderly housing complex in suburban Honolulu. It says Gaudencio Sotio served in the Commonwealth Army of the Philippines — a unit made up of U.S.-trained soldiers that was part of the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East — during the war.
After the war, he joined the New Philippine Scouts — a unit of Philippine citizens that served with the U.S. Armed Forces and later worked as a radio newscaster. Gaudencio Sotio was a quiet man and never spoke much of the war, she said. But he kept a slim box full of medals, including a Purple Heart.
Because her husband applied before he died, Norma Sotio would receive his benefit if the VA determines he had a valid claim. She says she’d share any money she receives with his children. ♦