Friday, December 21, 2007

The Grinch Who Stole the Vets' Christmas

When I went to Washington DC last February to join Filipino WW II veterans lobby congressional representatives to support the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill, I sensed a feeling of giddiness and excitement among the veterans and their supporters that this would be the year. At long last, after 17 years of persistent lobbying, Congress was finally poised to vote to rescind the infamous Rescission Act of 1946 that deprived Filipino veterans of the benefits they were promised when they were incorporated into the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) in 1941.

The two principal sponsors of the bill in the Senate and in the House, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Bob Filner (D-California), were now the respective chairs of their Veterans committees thanks to the Democratic sweep in the November 2006 elections.

By April of 2007, both Sen. Akaka and Rep. Filner had held hearings on their respective equity bills and had garnered their committees’ approval. It had never advanced to this stage before as previous veterans committees in both chambers had never brought the bill to a vote in their committees. But other congressional committees would also have to review the bill and approve it before it could be brought to a floor vote in the senate and House.

The sticking point was how much US Army-certified Filipino WW II veterans (“Filvets”) would receive in monthly benefits. Previous proposals had distinguished between the 5,000 Filvets in the US and the 15,000 Filvets in the Philippines.

Because of the difference in the costs of living, it was believed that Filvets in the US should receive $800 a month while Filvets in the Philippines would get $100 a month pension. But many Filvets supporters opposed the proposal on the basic principle that there should be no difference in pension based on geography.

A significant compromise was reached when the veterans and their supporters agreed that all Filvets should receive the same amount – a minimum of $200 a month. Filvets in the US receive about $800 a month in SSI benefits which would not be affected by the additional $200 pension while Filvets in the Philippines would receive the average monthly salary there.

Under Akaka’s guidance, the Filvets bill (S.57) was tacked on to an omnibus veterans bill (S.1315) that would cover other veterans issues. Akaka stressed that “as a matter of fundamental fairness and justice, Filipino veterans' benefits should be similar to those of other veterans.”

"S-1315 would fix a historical wrong,” Akaka said, “Filipino veterans served under the command of the US military during World War II. They were considered by the Veterans' Administration, the predecessor of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, to be veterans of the US military, naval and air service until that status was revoked by the Rescission Acts of 1946.”

When the Senate hearing took place last April, the principal Senate opponent of the bill was Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), the former chair of the Senate Veterans Committee. He calculated the price tag of the Filvets bill to be almost $1 billion over ten years which he believes the government cannot afford to pay when “there are other pressing bills pending before the Committee especially benefits for veterans of the War on Terror.”

The US Department Of Veterans Affairs under then Secretary Jim Nicholson also opposed the bill based on an assessment that additional benefit costs including medical and memorial benefits of $510 million in the first year would total more than $4 billion over ten years.

Craig was the front man for the opposition to the equity bill. If he dropped his objections or if he resigned, then perhaps the bill could pass. But what are the chances of that happening?

On June 11 of this year, while passing through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Sen. Craig went to the men’s room and did something there that led to his arrest by an undercover officer for lewd and lascivious conduct . On August 1, Craig pled guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge hoping no one would notice. When news of the scandal broke and his conduct described as “unforgivable” by Senate Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, Craig announced his resignation from the US Senate effective September 30.

Unfortunately, Craig reneged on his promise to resign and announced that he would stay on until his term expires next year. On December 12, when a critical vote on S.1315 was needed to pass it before the Senate adjourned for the year, Sen. Craig rose in opposition to the Filvets provision in the bill, killing any chance that the bill would pass this year.

Incorporating the anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner sentiment of many in his party, Craig spoke against providing benefits to Filvets in the Philippines. "First of all, they do not live in this country, they are not US citizens. They are taking money away from our veterans. That is the 'Robin Hood in reverse' effect. At least Robin Hood, when he took money, left it in Nottingham. He spread it out amongst his own. Here we are taking money from our own and sending it all the way to the Philippines," Craig said.

Six of the grandsons of these “Robin Hoods” have died in Iraq and Afghanistan in the service of the United States just in the last six months: Army Pfc. Victor M. Fontanilla, 23, Stockton, CA (5/17/07), Army Spc. Mark R. C. Caguioa, 21, Stockton, CA ( 5/24/07), Army Sgt. Richard V. Correa, 25, Honolulu, HI (5/29/07), Army Staff Sgt. Greg P. Gagarin, 38, Los Angeles, CA (6/3/07), Marine Sgt. Michael E. Tayaotao, 27,Sunnyvale, CA (8/9/07), Army Pfc. Paulomarko U. Pacificador, 24,Shirley, NY (8/13/07), and Army Specialist Lester Roque, 23, Carson, CA (11/10/07).

Sen. Craig should be reminded of what George Washington said in 1789: "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation."

Sen. Craig was the grinch who stole the Filvets’ Christmas.

Filipino veterans who turned 21 at the outbreak of the war in 1941 would now be about 87 years old. How many more Bataan Death Marches do they have left in them? How many more of these “Robin Hoods” will be around next year?

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