How Congress is Finally Keeping a Promise to Filipino Veterans

The stimulus bill resolves a six-decade dispute over their U.S. service.

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Tucked between allocations of $150 million to states for nursing home construction and $90 million for passport agencies, one provision in the 1,079-page federal stimulus bill has nothing to do with creating jobs—but it does settle a 63-year-old battle.

The provision compensates Filipino veterans of World War II, survivors now in their 80s and 90s, with lump-sum payments of $15,000 if they are U.S. citizens or $9,000 if they are not. The cost, $198 million, doesn't add to the bill's total cost because the funds were appropriated last year. Still, some critics complain that this doesn't belong in a stimulus bill and that the funds should go elsewhere. One better use of the money could have been for underfunded veterans' programs, says Dennis Cullinan, legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The issue dates back to 1941, when the Philippines was under U.S. control. President Roosevelt conscripted members of the Philippine Army into the U.S. military to fight Japan. By the end of the war, as many as 430,000 Filipinos had fought under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, including 60,000 in the 80,000-soldier Bataan death march. In 1942, Congress recognized Filipinos' service by promising them benefits equal to those of U.S. veterans. But that was reversed by the 1946 Rescission Act—some say for financial reasons, others say because of racism. "We made a promise, and then we did not carry it through," says Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, who has fought for the compensation for 17 years.

One sentence in the 1946 act especially smarted: the claim that their service wasn't "active." Tell that to Amadeo Urbano. "We were so active in harassing these Japanese," says the former guerrilla, now 85 and living in Arlington, Va. "But when victory was won, we were forgotten."

Bills to provide full benefits have been introduced since 1989. All were defeated, including one last year. The one "small victory," says Ben de Guzman of the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity, was that Congress appropriated the $198 million to be released at a later date. Some opponents objected to paying nonnationals while programs for American veterans went underfunded.

Some cited concerns that the measure could open the door to other claims. Advocates counter that, of the soldiers of 67 nationalities who fought for the U.S. military in World War II, all but the Filipinos have received equitable benefits. Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, who sponsored the stimulus provision authorizing the funds' release, doesn't dispute one of the critics' points. "This is not a stimulus proposal. It does not create jobs," he said on the floor. "But the honor of the United States is what is involved."

Some sacrifices were made to win passage. One was a clause saying acceptance of the payment constitutes "a complete release of any claim against the United States." Another was disbursement as a lump sum, which totals far less than American-born counterparts received in monthly benefits over their lifetimes.

But more important, say many veterans, is at long last setting the historical record straight. The provision declares that their service time "is hereby recognized as active military service." Says Urbano, "What is most important is our recognition—we are now considered veterans of the Second World War."