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Filipino Vets Seek Recognition, Benefits

When service-related injuries forced Guillermo Rumingan to retire from the Philippine Scouts of United States Army in 1951, he tried to claim benefits as a World War II veteran. He was told he was not entitled to any.

“I wanted to go back to school,” Rumingan said. “But I found out that I was not entitled to the benefits offered by the GI Bill.”

Today, Rumingan, others like him and their advocates are seeking the support of Members of Congress on pending bills that would fully recognize Filipino veterans.

The lobbying activities coincide with a hearing in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on S. 57, a measure that would allow pension benefits for Filipinos who fought alongside Americans in World War II.

The bill, also known as the Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2007, was introduced by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). Inouye said the measure would “restore the benefits due” to the veterans and grant them “full recognition of service for their sacrifices.”

Today’s activities take place as Filipinos around the country commemorate the forcible relocation of more than 75,000 Filipino and American prisoners of war in the Bataan Death March during WWII.

In the outbreak of war, President Franklin Roosevelt urged Filipinos to join the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East to fight against the Japanese, promising them benefits under the government. But the Rescission Act of 1946, passed by Congress, declared that Filipinos would not be considered as having served in the U.S. military. Filipinos who fought in the war alongside American soldiers were no longer allowed to claim pension, health care and other military benefits.

S. 57 essentially would rescind the Rescission Act of 1946 and allow veterans to receive pension benefits and grant them full recognition as WWII veterans. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), who has long supported measures similar to S. 57 in the past, called the hearing “ an important first step.”

According to the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity, there are approximately 7,000 veterans living in the United States and another 13,000 residing in the Philippines who would benefit from the bill.

Advocates say many Filipino veterans live below the poverty line and receive less in benefits than their American counterparts. Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, said the issue is about shared responsibility between the U.S. and Philippine governments.

“Didn’t we fight the war together?” Lachica said. “Here’s a situation where our veterans are poor and elderly … we only ask for something that is fair.”

With Democrats in power in Congress, advocates say the Equity Act, which also was introduced in the House, has seen more movement than ever before. But the slim majority Democrats hold in Senate might prove to be an obstacle for the measure.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Larry Craig (R-Idaho) has not yet taken a position on the bill, his spokesman Jeff Schrade said.

The Equity Act might fare better in the House, where it has received bipartisan support with Reps. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) co-sponsoring the measure, H.R. 760.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, also placed the legislation in the group’s high priority list.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing on the equity bill last month. Filner, the committee chairman, said he currently is working to find an offset for the bill. Costs for the measure are estimated at $900 million in a span of 10 years.

“[The bill] is way past due,” Filner said. “I have heard so many stories about [the veteran’s] bravery and courage, and so many have died.”

But with the Iraq War and current deficit, other members of the House committee worry about the costs. Jeff Phillips, communications director for House Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), said that while no one doubts the courage and sacrifice of the Filipino veterans, there are “a lot of other needs for veteran spending” that should be considered.

For some, the matter goes beyond costs.

“The hard, cold fact is that the veterans will no longer be with us in 10 years, which is why there’s added urgency to this,” said Ben de Guzman of the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity.

The effort to gain equity has been ongoing, with some victories over the years. Veterans won citizenship rights in 1990, partial recognition during the Clinton administration, the right to get medical care in veterans’ hospitals in 2003, and regained burial rights and compensation for widows and those who incurred service-related disabilities.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” Lachica said. “The question is what will we get from the equity bill; we’ve won two-thirds of the fight in my opinion … the most difficult part is getting the last slice.”

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