By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Seventy-five years is a long time to wait.
Filipino veterans finally received their just due at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. on Oct. 25, honoring those brave fighters who risked their lives during World War II with the Congressional Gold Medal. It is the highest award given to a civilian.
Elderly gentlemen dressed in their military best waited outside the Capitol before the ceremony on a brisk, sunny morning last week. Some were in wheelchairs, had canes, or had walkers, but none minded the wait to get inside. I was there with my sister on behalf of our late father, Johnny Casabar Cruz. He served in the Army during World War II. Many younger military members, volunteering for the event or family of the veterans, were dressed in their uniforms as well and when they passed the veterans, they saluted them.
The elderly vets, with pride, saluted back. Others carried pictures of their veterans or pins affixed to their coat as a sign that despite their absence, they
were there in spirit for this remarkable occasion. For many veterans, it was a long trek to D.C., as some came from Hawaii, Alaska, and the Philippines. Notably, Alaska Airlines gave some vets and their next of kin a 20 percent discount to fly to the event. No one complained about the distance — many saw it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to honor their mother, father, or grandparent.
The medal was presented to veterans, next of kin, and their families. House Speaker Paul Ryan made opening remarks commending the Filipino veterans for their service. Also in attendance were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Mitch McConnell. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, was also in attendance and visited with veterans and their families after the ceremony.
Celestino Almeda, a 100-year-old veteran, spoke at the ceremony. The World War II veteran immigrated to the United States in 1996 and lives in Gaithersburg, Md. Almeda is one of just a handful of remaining Filipino veterans who fought long and hard to receive the benefits they were entitled to, when they answered the call of duty to defend the United States.
Almeda noted the many veterans that passed away waiting for this day. Today, only 18,000 Filipino veterans are still alive. But, being the ardent soldier he was trained to be, Almeda remarked, “Old soldiers never die, they fade away.” It was a statement that Gen. Douglas MacArthur gave in April 1951 during his farewell address. It was MacArthur that famously vowed that he would return to liberate the Philippines from Japanese control after U.S. troops were forced out in 1942.
President Franklin Roosevelt created the U.S. Army Forces of the Far East, offering full benefits and citizenship to Filipinos who enlisted. Fifty-seven-thousand Filipinos stepped up to serve. The promise of benefits and U.S. citizenship were later rescinded by President Harry Truman. In 2009, the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund authorized the release of a one-time, lump-sum payment to eligible World War II Filipino veterans. It was announced at the ceremony that Almeda would receive $15,000 after a review of his military file.
Congress passed Public Law 114-265, entitled the “Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015.” In one of his last acts as president of the United States, Barack Obama signed the resolution into law on Dec. 14, 2016.
The honor was bestowed to 260,000 Filipinos who fought alongside American forces during the war, as well as those that gave the ultimate sacrifice for their nation. The ceremony honored Filipinos, Filipino Americans, and those Americans serving in World War II.
It was a long day for the veterans and their families, as the ceremony was followed by the official awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal. The occasion brought smiles, tears, and relief to many in attendance.
“There were no words to describe the occasion, there all good superlatives,” stated Brig. Gen. Oscar Hillman. Hillman is an Iraq War veteran and co-director of Region 8 (covering Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska) of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. The ceremony made him reflect on his mother, grandfather, and uncle. “There was a lot of work behind the scenes.” Hillman spoke of the logistical efforts to locate veterans, and getting everything prepared and organized for the occasion.
Hillman, along with many other advocacy organizations, spent a great deal of time lobbying for the Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino Veterans. “It was very, very hard.” The budget and last year’s election made it difficult to lobby for the recognition. “There were other organizations that wanted to be included and senators that were challenging the entitlements. There were a lot of calls, letter writing, and tweeting.” Hillman said that social media helped remind legislators to support the Filipino veterans in the efforts to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
Zenaida Crisostomo Slemp, co-director for Region 8, noted that it was inspiring to see all of the families of veterans who traveled to D.C. She met a family that heard about the ceremony just two weeks prior and brought 10 people from Alaska, including their 90-year-old mother, to honor their deceased father.
Slemp’s father was a prisoner of war during the infamous Bataan Death March, which took the lives of many Filipinos. “I know my father is smiling in heaven with his compadres.” She added, “I know how important it was for him.” Slemp noted that Washington state was the first to have all of its senators and congressional members sign off on the bill to award the medals. Slemp agreed that the effort to put together such a ceremony was a huge undertaking. She kept motivated as she thought of her father. “I’m doing this for you,” she explained.
Slemp also was pleasantly surprised that Alaska Airlines honored the veteran families on a flight back from Washington D.C. to Seattle.
Some veterans who were unable to travel to receive their medals will receive replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal at a Nov. 15 ceremony at the International District Drop In Center (IDIC), on 7301 Beacon Avenue South, Seattle at 12:45 p.m.
For more information on the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, visit filvetrep.org.
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.