Many thousands of Filipinos answered Roosevelt's call to join the U.S. forces fighting Japan in the Philippines, but had been denied the benefits they were promised until last month. When Obama's stimulus package passed, it contained a provision for a lump sum payment for these Filipino WWII veterans, which I wrote about as a "Victory for the Asian-American Community."
I later got messages from friends and fellow activists who have been working on the issue, deriding the provision as "hush money" and a "shallow gesture" because it falls tremendously short of the full equity we demanded.
But such is the nature and dilemma of reparations campaigns, whether it be for Japanese interment, the ethnic cleansing of American Indians, or slavery -- you never get the big number you want. And in the case of African Americans, they still have not gotten their "40 acres and a mule." However, it doesn't mean we don't recognize the significance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or celebrate the election of our first African American president. While anger is what helps drive people into social justice movements, victories are part of what help people stay.
Still, I wanted to hear directly from a Filipino veteran who has been fighting for this issue for decades. I went to visit 87-year-old Faustino "Peping" Baclig, who lives in Los Angeles and got me involved in the Filipino Veteran's movement as a student.
When I asked him how he felt about the lump sum payment, his response was sobering. "Having gone through Bataan, the death march, and concentration camps, we are more realistic than idealistic," Manong Peping stated. "If there is something to help me during my old days, I need to pick it up, with reservations of course."
He told me that the issue of finding justice for the Filipino veterans was something that brought the entire community together. Given that, the government's recent action represents "not so much a victory for us [the veterans], but a victory for the Filipino community."
Manong Peping is still hurt by the "double blade" America brought on the veterans by denying them the same benefits and privileges received by others who shared the same trench and fought the same enemy. He said the provision "did not evoke any special feeling" because he had always expected America to make amends. "We still have faith in democracy," he told me. Now, Manong Peping said he and his fellow veterans plan to start working on issues of family reunification and extending the benefits to the widows of deceased veterans.
I also spoke with the executive director of the Filipino-American Service Group, Inc., Susan Espiritu Dilkes, who told me about the family of a dying veteran who recently contacted her about the lump sum payment. She brought the Veterans Affairs application form to his hospital bedside, where he was too ill to even sign his name. After notarizing his thumbprint and assisting his family in completing the forms, she hand-carried it with about 50 others to the VA building to begin processing. That was four days after Obama signed the stimulus package. Six days later, he passed away with the knowledge that his family would receive the money he should have gotten many years ago.
Ms. Dilkes told me of another family who came to see her to ask about the forms. Their veteran grandfather passed away three days after the bill was passed. They came to see her two days after his death. It was too late.
The stories she told me highlighted a larger potential dilemma. The Filipino veterans have only one year to claim the $15,000. There are over 18,000 veterans left, and Manong Peping estimates at least 4,000 in the United States. In order to ensure some justice is served, we need to make sure these veterans get the forms. Manong Peping walked alongside American GIs in the Bataan Death March over 67 years ago -- these are very elderly men who could certainly use assistance in paying for the medical bills and other costs that come with being nearly 90 years old. Some may only have a few months, or even days left. It would be a grave injustice for this bill to have passed and only a small number of veterans claim what should have been given to them years ago.
Mrs. Dilkes' organization does not have the funding to do a full fledged outreach program. There are other challenges. I contacted the VA and according to the person at the call center, they carry no statistics or lists of eligible veterans and are "relying on the veterans and their families" to contact them. They also have not posted the claim forms on the VA website and could not tell me the time-line for processing or what the next steps would be past sending it in. I then asked her how many calls she herself has gotten since passage of the bill. "About one per day," she responded.
That means it is up to us who know Filipino veterans or people who might know veterans to get the word out and put the forms in their hands. The window for this small measure of justice will close very soon. Our communities need to worry less about protesting the lump sum payment and unite to ensure that men like Manong Peping and their families receive the lump sum payment. As Mrs. Dilkes asked me, "What will happen if you keep fighting, and there are not veterans left to fight for?" Many of us will live to fight another day, but for those who may not, we must act now.
(Click on this link to download a copy of the claim form the Filipino veterans need to send out immediately).