Monday, August 27, 2012

Forsaken and forgotten (Phl Nat'l Heroes Day)

Today, August 27, we proudly remember the brave sacrifice of our fellow Filipinos with the commemoration of National Heroes Day. Yet some of our bravest heroes continue to find themselves both forsaken and forgotten—and their time is truly running out.

During World War II, Filipinos were called to stand and fight with their American allies as Japan swooped to conquer the Philippines. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order to commission some 250,000 soldiers to serve in America’s cause, promising the soldiers equal recognition with their American counterparts. But that promise was snatched away with the 1946 Rescission Act, and since then Filipino veterans of the last great war have fought for any recognition or benefit from the US government.

There has been some movement on that front. In 2009, US President Barack Obama signed into law, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the US$198-million WWII Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation fund. In 2010, Obama added to this fund when he allocated $67 million for the veterans with the signing of the US Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2010. The legislation assigns a single lump sum payment of $15,000 for US-based Filipino veterans and $9,000 for those based in the Philippines.

According to US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas “ensuring that the sacrifices of brave Filipino war veterans are compensated under the terms of the US Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2010 further underscores our respect for the Filipino people and our commitment to honoring their services.”

Despite those steps, however, thousands of Filipino veterans are still struggling for recognition and benefits. Even those who have been honored find themselves forsaken. In Pensacola, Florida, in the process of fighting to get a Florida House resolution called “The Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2011” a public hearing, they trooped to the office of Rep. Jeff Miller and formally returned their uniforms and the medals awarded them as an act of protest.

Felino Punsalan, 96, grimly pointed out that the bill already had 96 bipartisan sponsors and that “other bills with 13, six, or even zero cosponsors got public hearings, but not an equity bill that would give honor and dignity to Filipino veterans.”

The protest action was organised by the group Justice for Filipino Veterans, whose national coordinator, Arturo Garcia, said: “This symbolic protest also marks the end of our two decades of lobbying, but our fight will continue in the court and on the streets.” He also said that some 24,000 veterans’ requests for compensation had been denied, and that the programs available to them weren’t enough. “There’s not enough time left,” he warned. “Of the 250,000 who fought in World War II, less than 41,000 are still alive. Many are dying.”

These trials and tribulations are also true for the veterans who live in the Philippines; they and their families have also struggled to get proper benefits from the Philippine government through the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office. The oldest among them are unable to travel to the PVAO to sign the necessary paperwork for their pensions; the others find that the pensions are too meager to meet their daily needs.

Occasionally the result is tragedy. On Feb 24, 2009, 90-year-old Fortunato Pacatang embarked on a five-hour journey from Negros Oriental to Cebu to fill out the required papers to receive his compensation from the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation fund. He did not make it to Camp Lapu-Lapu. He had to be taken to a hospital when his health deteriorated at journey’s end, and then was asked to leave the facility when his family fell short of the wherewithal to pay the bill. Pacatang never got to sign the papers as he passed away two days after setting out on the trip. His tragic story is not unique.

During last year’s Araw ng Kagitingan rites in Pilar, Bataan, President Aquino honored the courageous veterans: “I know that you, our veterans, may have lost some battles during those times, but your courage and love for country became instruments in winning a larger war—a war to awaken the Filipino heart, which allowed us to achieve independence.”

The war is now a distant memory, but the veterans’ battle to live and be remembered continues. Let us honor our unsung heroes by making sure that they receive the benefits and the recognition they deserve regardless of what holiday we mark and celebrate.-Asia News Network (August 26, 2012)

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