DEEMED as an act to correct a “historic wrong,” the $787-billion economic stimulus package recently approved by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama comes with $198 million in lump-sum benefits to surviving Filipino veterans who fought alongside American soldiers during World War II.

Though primarily intended to boost the U.S. economy and provide American workers with four million jobs, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, through the initiative of Democratic senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, also provides for a Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund — one-time and tax-free payments of $15,000 for Filipino veterans who have become U.S. citizens, and $9,000 for non-U.S. citizens.

Of the 250,000 who served under the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East during World War II, only around 16,000 remain — 4,000 in the U.S. and 12,000 in the Philippines — to witness the fulfillment of their over six decades of struggle to be finally recognized as U.S. veterans.

Setting aside the 1941 executive order by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt which called Filipinos into the service of the USAFFE, the U.S. Congress passed the Rescission Act of 1946. Signed by then President Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, the law declared the Filipino veterans not to have been of service in the U.S. military, hence not entitled to any rights, privileges or benefits.

Among Filipino veterans who have braved poor living conditions in the U.S. while awaiting the rightful recognition of their service during the war by the American government, the news of the “equity compensation fund” has however been greeted with less enthusiasm.

“We fought for four long years side by side with the Americans and we are only getting a compensation of $15,000,” laments Faustino Abago. “We need pension paid month on month. $15,000 can be spent very quickly. We deserve better.”

Now 87 years old, Abago, who hails from Abra, shares a studio with his wife and a widow of another veteran in San Francisco. He has shrapnel wounds on his chest as a result of a grenade blast during the war. He was
involved in the capture of the Japanese military general, Yamashita.

“What can we do?” exclaims 85-year-old Apolonio Ladia, who now goes around on an electric wheelchair. “That is all they are giving to us and we waited for so long for equity.”

Born in Manila, Ladia says he will use the money to help his son and his two kids who are arriving in the U.S. soon. “It took 18 years for our petition to be approved. I am staying here because the $15,000 will not be enough if I get sick in the Philippines.”

Ladia now lives with his wife in a senior housing Woolf House and has been a volunteer for many years at Canon Kip Senior Center.

Meanwhile, Maura Fajardo, widow of Ernesto, who was among the first group of veterans who arrived in the U.S. in 1991, isn’t sure if his husband would be getting anything as he died six years ago. Claim applications can only be made during the one-year period starting on the date of the enactment of the Act.

“My husband waited so long for equity,” shares Fajardo, recalling how they used to survive only on his monthly payments from the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) and his pension as a former public-school teacher.

Regardless, Fajardo says life should still go on for her and her son, who lives with her in a studio in San Francisco. She says she will continue to pick up scrap tin cans and sell them to make extra money. “I also sell the cans of my neighbors in the apartment building and I get half of what I sold,” she says.

(The collection of photos accompanying this post is part of an upcoming book, “America’s Second-Class Veterans,” featuring the photographs of Filipino social documentary photographer Rick Rocamora documenting the lives of Filipino veterans in their quest for equity and justice.)

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