On a bleak Saturday morning a group of elderly Filipino veterans eat their burgers in a small McDonald’s, on Roosevelt Avenue in Elmhurst, and talk about family and fighting the Japanese. Their ears are plugged with hearing aids and walking sticks rest on their thighs as they speak of a distant past that binds them. When approached for an interview, Climaco Gador declines, tapping at his head to suggest that his mind is not as clear as it once was.
After a 63-year battle for government compensation, Filipino soldiers who fought for the United States during World War II are facing another struggle: receiving their benefits before they die.
Sonny Sampayan, a 50-year-old Filipino-American veteran and coordinator for a Filipino veterans group, said there are at least 55 surviving Filipino World War II veterans in New Jersey and New York.
The men won a significant victory earlier this year when, in a little-known provision of the federal stimulus package, the U.S. government agreed to set aside $198 million to pay their claims. The allocation followed years of negotiations between the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The government estimated that there were 18,000 surviving Filipino veterans, to whom payments need to be made, 3,000 of which are still in the United States. However, Veterans Affairs has received close to 33,000 applications, which may be a reason for the delay.
Ten of the 25 remaining veterans in New York meet every week in Elmhurst. Rafael De Perata, recalls leaving his wife and six-month-old daughter 65 years ago to join the battle against the Japanese in La Union, west of Manila
De Perata, recounts the morning he slept late and was left behind by his fellow infantrymen. The Japanese wiped out the entire company, he later learned. “I am very fortunate to be alive,” said De Perata, now 88 and dressed in black to mourn the loss of his wife.
The veteran was one of the 250,000 Filipinos who fought for the United States in World War II, yet were never paid for their service.
But De Perata and his fellow vets, approximately 3,000 across the country, say the process has been slow. Of the 25 in the metropolitan area, only four have gotten their checks. Many of them are without spouses who could benefit from the payment in the event of their deaths.
The government provision in the stimulus bill has granted $15,000 for U.S. Filipino citizens, and $9,000 for veterans living in the Philippines. Many say they would have preferred a monthly pension over a lump sum payment.
De Perata, who was actively involved in the efforts to win the compensation, feels the government has failed to acknowledge their contributions. “The amount is not commensurate to what we did, but it was what was given to us,” he said. “We consider ourselves beggars and beggars don’t choose.”
Santiago Hipolito, 81, is one of the younger veterans of the group. Hipolito served for the U.S. forces when he was 15, and said he was the first Filipino World War II veteran to be made a U.S. citizen. But like the others he is concerned he may not receive the check.
Both Hipoloto and De Perata applied for the payment between late February and early March, yet the only correspondence they have received from the Department of Veterans Affairs was in August, confirming the office had received the application and were processing it.
During World War II, the quarter-million Filipinos who served had been promised the same benefits American soldiers were to receive when the war ended. However, President Truman took away these benefits in the 1946 Recission Act, handed down only months before the United States recognized the independence of the Philippines.
Ronald Sagudan, the VA liaison for Asian American Pacific Islanders, said the office was making efforts to issue the checks as quickly as possible, but that it was having problems with duplicate claims. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 3,836 claims have been received and 11.7 percent of these compensation claims have been granted.
“Every claim is different depending on the amount of information a veteran has, this is what makes the process so difficult,” Sagudan said. He also said the applications had to be sent to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis Missouri. “They have decades worth of records to sort through there and have to find one person,” he said. Sagudan added that the VA was working with local Filipino veterans associations to ensure that all were aware of their entitlements.
Eric Nachica, a volunteer with the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans in Virginia, said the group had been invited for breakfast at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day this month. He said the coalition had asked the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to make a public statement acknowledging the efforts of World War II Filipino Veterans at the event. They have not yet received a response. Sampayan also said he would make sure the veterans were acknowledged at this year’s parade in New York City.
Back in Elmhurst, De Perata sits holding a black and white photograph of himself as a young guerrilla and pulls down the front of the winter hat given to him by the U.S. Army. “With these delays we could die any day and might not get it,” he said. “We should be getting it now.”