The Forgotten Veterans
Friday, Aug. 4, 2006 | On assigned days, Joe Esloa is in charge of unlocking the Filipino American Senior Citizens office at a senior center in Mira Mesa. He looks on at a small group practicing traditional folk dances in another room, and laughs as he remembers the days when he too would dance.
“But not any anymore, I’m a little too old,” Esloa said in his native Tagalog.
When Esloa was still young enough to dance, he kept his legs busy during World War II, hauling fish and salt to the mountains near his town in the Philippines. He was the supplier for guerilla groups fighting against the Japanese, who had occupied the entire country.
After the war, Esloa joined the New Philippine Scouts, a unit working with the U.S. Armed Forces. Members were trained for combat, but their focus was on rebuilding in the Philippines and Japan, which were destroyed during the war. Esloa remembers constructing bridges and other structures in Okinawa until the Scouts was dissolved in 1949.
“Training wasn’t so bad,” he said. “You learn discipline and love of the country.”
There are many veterans like Esloa who gather at senior centers and community meeting places around San Diego, sharing war stories and battle scars. But amidst the chatter at the senior center in Mira Mesa, there a unique element: the uncertainty of the actual status of these men. They’ve never been recognized by the U.S. government as veterans of World War II. They talk about disability claims that have not been approved, visa petitions for adult sons and daughters still in the Philippines, and friends who have recently passed on without the full benefits once promised to them.
In the outbreak of war in the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt drafted the Commonwealth Army of the Philippines to serve under the United States Armed Forces of the Far East. At the time, the Philippines was a recognized U.S. territory and those drafted were considered U.S. nationals. Thousands of Filipinos also joined guerrilla groups to combat Japanese occupiers, but all the various units worked with the U.S. Armed Forces.
Filipino soldiers performed a myriad of duties from hand-to-hand combat to reconnaissance, helping American troops in and out of the battlefields.
But in 1946, the Congress passed the Rescission Act, declaring that those who served in guerilla groups, the Commonwealth Army of the Philippines and New Philippine Scouts would not be considered as having served in the U.S. military. The act also gave the Philippine army a $200 million under the condition that its service would not be deemed as service under the service of the United States.
Consequently, the law stripped Filipino veterans from receiving compensation, medical care, burial rights and pension, though they were originally given those same benefits before the law’s enactment.
“There were other soldiers from Malaysia, China, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries who also fought during World War II, we were all together,” Manuel Braga, commander of the Filipino World War II Veterans Federation of San Diego County. “They all still received their benefits, but the Rescission Act cut ours off.”
There are approximately 6,000 Filipino veterans now living in the United States, with a large concentration in California. About 80 percent live below the poverty line – their only source of income is Social Security, according to Eric Lachica of the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans.
“We’ve been fighting for 64 years to get equal benefits,” Manuel Cannu, a veteran and legal advisor for the ACFV, said. “But the federal government has failed to give what’s due to us.”
While veterans have been asking for full benefits for more than a decade, they have only made gains in Congress in the past few years. They won the right to get medical care in Veteran hospitals in 2003, citizenship rights in the early 90s, and slowly gained back burial rights and compensation for widows and those with service-related disabilities. However, pensions are still unavailable to veterans who were in the New Philippine Scouts, Common Wealth Army of the Philippines and guerilla groups. Other low-income, war-time veterans receive a government pension.
A pending piece of legislation, known as the Filipino Veterans Equity Bill, would formally recognize the Filipino-Americans as World War II vets. This year, the bill was referred to a subcommittee in the House of Representatives and still pending approval.
Advocacy groups have been pushing for the bill since 1993. Susan Dilkes, executive director for the Filipino American Service Group, Inc., said finances and connections factor in.
“We’re not politically connected; there is no Filipino in Congress and not enough congressmen pushing for our bill,” Dilkes said. “There’s also not enough money right now and we’re not the first priority of the government.”
And even with what is available now, the veterans continue to encounter obstacles when applying for benefits.
There’s Francisco Castillo, who signed up for the Philippine army at the age of 17. During the war, he was hit by a grenade and spent a few months in the hospital before being discharged. His application for disability was further complicated because his name did not appear in a national registry for those who were in military service.
“You might eventually get it, but the process gets longer,” Cannu said. “They have to handle it case by case.”
Braga has been trying to claim for disability compensation since 1949. Like Esloa, he first joined the guerillas and later signed up for the New Philippine Scouts. He later incurred eye injuries and malaria in Japan, yet his claims for disability compensation have been disapproved time and time again and he only receives Medicare, he said.
“We really need [Medicare],” Braga said in Tagalog. “But it’s still not enough.”
Proceso Dangazo, who also fought as a guerilla, has been in the U.S. for nine years and receives $800 a month in Social Security.
“But when your rent is 600, you only have 200 for food,” Dangazo said.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1990 gave U.S. citizenship to veterans who served in WWII. For every veteran who took advantage of the citizenship law, there were also adult children left behind, waiting for their chance to be reunited with their fathers. While Esloa is currently a U.S. permanent resident, all of his eight children are still in the Philippines.
“They tell me to come home, that enough is enough,” Esloa said. “I’ve petitioned three of my kids but even that is not sure.”
Part of the controversial immigration bill passed by Senate earlier this year, is a clause that would allow the adult children of Filipino veterans into the U.S. Though the clause is one of the least controversial issues within the bill, its passage is still up in the air.
And so, veterans like Esloa continue to wait, just as they have waited years before, many of them already in their 80s and 90s. Braga talks about two veterans, his friends who have passed away recently. He has to attend both funerals in a matter of days.