Filipino World War II Veterans Demand Justice


PNNscholar1 - Posted on 03 April 2011

More than 20 years ago I lived in Waipahu Hawaii. I’d arrived from San Francisco with my dad and stepmom. We stayed in the rear of Mr. Gutierrez’s house—my father’s father in law. Mr. Gutierrez didn’t say much—when it was time to eat, he’d say…eat…if he needed you he’d say…come.  Often times he'd call out: come, eat!  When he wasn’t cutting hair part-time, he tended to his garden. He grew upo squash, malunggay and other vegetables. There were also mango and guava trees that shaded me as I reached up to yank the gifts of their branches. Sometimes I’d be alone with Mr. Gutierrez while my dad and stepmom were looking for work. We’d sit in front of the TV in silence. Then, all of a sudden, he’d break into laughter. I often didn’t know what he was laughing about. His laughter was like a song with a long drawn melody. His laugh made me laugh. We didn’t exchange many words but we shared laughter.

 

I didn’t know about Mr. Gutierrez’s past, didn’t know about his life during World War II, how he’d survived the Bataan Death March. He never spoke of it, I never asked. I just waited for his laughter, waited for the fragrance of his dishes, made from the vegetables he grew. I can still smell it.

 

Back in San Francisco I see them, Filipino World War II Veterans…Veteranos. They walk slowly or get around on motorized scooters with mounted American flags. I see their large sunglasses as the sun rises in the sky. Their caps read: WORLD WAR II VETERAN. They congregate downtown. They do their shopping, access community resources such as the Veterans Equity Center (http://www.vetsequitycenter.org) and gather amongst themselves, observing and participating in open air chess games on Market Street, watching the movement of pieces on a board, a game that is a metaphor for battle. But for Filipino World War II Veterans, the fight for full benefits has been a game in which dwindling numbers of aging veterans are pawns in a game of bureaucrats that have not done right in honoring their service and sacrifice. Filipino World War II veterans and their supporters from across the United States will lobby congress, April 13th and 14th, demanding full recognition and benefits to veteranos and their families. HR 21--authored by Rep. Jackie Speier, D. San Francisco/San Mateo—The Veterans Fairness Act of 2011—is what Filipino World War II veterans and their supporters are pushing for. The legislation is an attempt to restore full equity of all benefits to Filipino World War II veterans, their widows and children. The bill also seeks to expand the criteria of eligibility to include all military records, not just the official records known as the Missouri List—a reference of US Military service of Filipinos during World War II—a list that was lost in a 1973 fire. The list included army personnel from 1912-1960.

 

The Speier bill is the latest in a long fight for justice for Filipino Veteranos, whose numbers are an estimated 50,000—40,000 in the Philippines and the remaining in the US. The Recission Act of 1946 classified the US Military services of Filipinos—who fought under the US armed forces in the Far East--as inactive, taking away their benefits as American veterans. Of the 66 nationalities that served the US during World War II, the Filipinos are the only group to not receive full military benefits. In 2008, congress granted Filipino World War II Veterans a one-time lump sum payment, on condition of a waiver that would free the US from any future claims to benefits such as a lifetime monthly pensions. 42 percent of all lump sum claimants to date have been denied. Joint Resolution 6 was introduced in the California Assembly in February asking president Obama to support HR 210. Resolution 6 supports restoring $1,500 monthly benefits for life—benefits that are given to all World War II veterans. It also urges providing benefits to the widows and children of veterans.

 

I think of Mr. Gutierrez, who still lives in Waipahu, still tending to his garden. I visited him not long ago. He gave me Malunggay from his garden. I watched his hands pull the ripe vegetables. I watched his brown feet dig into the earth that is a part of him. I wondered if flowers sometimes feel like barbed wire in his hands. He still didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. His hands, his laughter—his garden—is the fragrance of his life.

 

(c) 2011 Tony Robles

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