Submission For The Record of Ms. Vanessa B.M. Vergara, Esq., Filipino Civil Rights Advocates, Co-Chair, Chicago, IL, Chapter
Chairman Filner and Members of the Committee:
Thank you for this opportunity to provide testimony to the House Veterans Affairs Committee concerning an issue that is near and dear to my heart. My name is Vanessa Vergara and I am an attorney practicing law in Chicago. I am the Co-Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the Filipino Civil Rights Advocates (“FilCRA”). FilCRA is dedicated to protecting and promoting the civil rights of the Filipino community and is a proud partner in the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity. For over 10 years, I have studied, written about and actively advocated on behalf of Filipino WWII veterans who have been wrongly deprived of veteran benefits to which they were entitled by virtue of their service in the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1997, I wrote “An Assessment of U.S. Veteran Benefits for Filipino WWII Veterans” published by Harvard University’s Asian American Policy Review -- the first academic article to specifically analyze veteran benefits policy relating to Filipino WWII veterans. For your reference, I am attaching a copy of my article as Exhibit 1 to my testimony.
I first learned about the issue of Filipino WWII veterans in 1996, when I was a senior in college majoring in political science at Hamline University. In the fall of 1996, my university's political science department selected me to come to Washington, D.C. to study at American University and intern at the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Legislative Affairs. At the time, I was also working on my Senior Honor’s Thesis and was desperately in search of a topic. During my internship at the Justice Department, I met an individual who recommended that I study the story of Filipino veterans who served in the U.S. military during WWII and were stripped of their veteran benefits shortly after the war ended. He told me that no one had yet formally researched this issue. Although I prided myself on being a diligent student of American history, this was the first time I had ever heard that Filipinos served in the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII and that their veteran benefits were taken away from them by Congress. In fact, I had never heard of any instance in which the United States revoked veteran benefits to soldiers who honorably served in the U.S. military.
Indeed, the history books I studied from my grade school years through college never once told the story of Filipinos who valiantly served in the U.S. military during WWII and were denied their rightful veteran benefits. While I was aware that the Philippines became a U.S. Commonwealth in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War, I never realized that over 200,000 Filipinos were inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East ("USAFFE") pursuant to an Executive Order issued by President Roosevelt on July 26, 1941:
As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, I hereby call and order into the service of the armed forces of the United States . . . and place under the command of a general officer, United States Army . . . all of the organized military forces of the Government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines.
On the same day, General Douglas MacArthur was designated the Commanding General of the newly constituted United States Armed Forces of the Far East. Just one day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded the Philippines on December 8, 1941. I was also unaware that in 1946 – immediately following the end of WWII -- Congress passed the Rescission Act which disqualified Filipino veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII from "active service" status, thereby excluding them from qualification for veteran benefits. The Rescission Act is the only instance in the twentieth century where Congress drew a distinction between veterans with regard to veteran benefits on the basis of how, where or why they served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Upon graduating from college and returning to my hometown of Chicago to attend law school at Northwestern University, I continued my involvement in local, grassroots efforts to help pass the Equity Act. My first experience actively advocating for the rights of Filipino WWII veterans took place when I was beginning law school at Northwestern. In August of 1997, Senator Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, a distinguished graduate of Northwestern University School of Law, gave the welcoming convocation address to a room full of bright-eyed, eager first-year law students. Senator Bumpers spoke about his experiences as a veteran of WWII and how, after the war, he availed himself of the G.I. Bill which allowed him to come to Chicago to study law school at Northwestern. After his speech, I spoke to Senator Bumpers about his experience fighting in WWII and if he was aware that Filipino WWII veterans who fought in the U.S. military were stripped of their veteran benefits. Having spent time in the Pacific war theater, he told me that he fought side-by-side with Filipinos during WWII but was not aware that Filipino veterans who served in the U.S. military were unable to receive veteran benefits as he did. I told Senator Bumpers about my article that had been recently published by Harvard University and whether he would consider becoming a co-sponsor to the Equity Act. He asked me to send him my article and he would most certainly look into the issue. Two weeks later, I received a letter from Senator Bumpers thanking me for bringing the Equity Act to his attention and informing me that he had become a Senate co-sponsor to the Equity Act.
Since my days at Northwestern, I have continued to be actively involved in the Filipino community trying to promote awareness for the plight of Filipino WWII veterans and to help pass legislation that would finally give Filipino WWII veterans the veteran benefits to which they are entitled. Through these experiences, I have also had the great fortune of meeting many Filipino WWII veterans and their families from around the country, including Washington, D.C., California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Illinois. These veterans are heroes. I listen to their stories about when they were brave soldiers in their teens and 20’s, what it was like to fight fearlessly in the face of terrible and oppressive conditions and of all the struggles, pain and sacrifice they endured during the war and brutal Japanese occupation. Many veterans suffered through treacherous military endeavors, such as the Bataan Death March and did so with great honor and valor during the grimmest moments of WWII. Most of the Filipino WWII veterans are now in their 80’s and unfortunately, many live in poverty without the much-needed health and pension benefits afforded to their fellow American compatriots.
Their memories of WWII and their important role in that cause of freedom are so vivid. Every time I meet a Filipino veteran, I am struck by the deep pride they have in their military service in the U.S. Armed Forces, the love they have for America and the enduring hope that lights their eyes that before their time in this world comes to an end, America will finally make good on its word and recognize their service in the U.S. military by providing veteran benefits that are at par with the American counterparts with whom they fought side by side.
I also want you to know about Antonio Constantino – a Filipino WWII veteran who lives in public housing in Chicago. I met Mr. Constantino and his wife when my mother, sister and I were delivering senior gift baskets to needy Filipino seniors in the Chicagoland area this past Christmas. From 1943 to 1944, Mr. Constantino was in the guerilla forces, which in 1944 were absorbed into the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East – 51st Infantry Regiment P.A., 24th Infantry Division U.S. Army. Mr. Constantino heroically served in the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East until 1946 when he received his discharge papers from the U.S. Army. From 1946 to 1949, Mr. Constantino then went on to serve in the New Philippine Scouts and similarly, his discharge papers from 1949 state that he was discharged by the Army of the United States.
I asked him what, if anything, he had heard during the war, regarding whether Filipino soldiers would receive veteran benefits for their service in the U.S. military. Mr. Constantino told me that during the war, he and his fellow soldiers heard repeated broadcasts on the airways by President Roosevelt who encouraged Filipinos to stand strong and fight side-by-side with Americans and that whatever benefits and pay American soldiers receive, Filipinos would also receive. President Roosevelt also said in his broadcasts that the pensions of Filipino soldiers would be the same as the pensions received by American soldiers. Mr. Constantino further told me that General Douglas MacArthur also told Filipino soldiers the same message relayed by President Roosevelt – that Filipino soldiers would receive the same pension and benefits as their American counterparts. Mr. Constantino explained that the worst part of the war was not the battles themselves but that Filipino soldiers who died fighting in the war received nothing in terms of veteran benefits. I asked if Filipino soldiers were offered life insurance and Mr. Constantino said that National Life Insurance was offered by the U.S. military during the war – but only for only a limited time -- and therefore, very few Filipino soldiers were actually able to sign up for this insurance. After the war, Mr. Constantino also saw many injured Filipino veterans who were denied hospital and other veteran benefits.
As a veteran of WWII, Mr. Constantino came to the United States with his wife in 1992 pursuant to an immigration law that permitted Filipino WWII veterans to immigrate and naturalize to the United States. When he arrived in the United States, Mr. Constantino applied for veteran benefits but was told that he needed to be injured during the war to be eligible. Although Mr. Constantino suffers from a range of medical problems, because his disabilities are not war-related, he is deemed ineligible to receive a non-service connected disability pension. For veterans like Mr. Constantino, passage of the Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2007 would mean that he could finally be considered for and receive a disability pension for his non-service connected disabilities as are American veterans with whom he served in the U.S. military. Such a pension would no doubt make a world of difference for Mr. Constantino and his wife who live on an extremely limited income as they try to make ends meet on a daily basis. I also ask you to consider that unlike most legislation, the cost of implementing the Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2007 will only decline significantly over time. This simple fact is the result of the advanced age of the Filipino veteran population who pass away at a rate of 10 to 15 per day.
Almost exactly sixty-one years ago to this day and shortly after the conclusion of WWII, Congress passed the Rescission Act which provided that the heroic military service of Filipino veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces did not constitute "active service" needed to qualify for veteran benefits. For over 60 years, Filipino WWII veterans have fought for the equal benefits they earned in the battlefield as members of the U.S. military. With their advanced age and death rate of 10 to 15 per day, time is of the essence for the aging Filipino WWII veterans.
In February 1946, Congress had a choice to make as do you today. Today, you have the opportunity to correct a grave injustice against veterans who sacrificed life and limb as members of the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII. These veterans spilled their blood and sacrificed their lives in the most harrowing battles of WWII. Congress should pass the Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2007 to reverse a long-standing injustice against Filipino WWII veterans by amending Title 38 of the U.S. Code, to deem certain service in the organized military forces of the Commonwealth of the Philippines and the Philippine Scouts to have been active service for the purposes of conferring veteran benefits. Please don't turn your back on these heroic veterans who selflessly gave the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we all enjoy today.
[The attached article by Vanessa B.M. Vergara, "Broken Promises and Aging Patriots: An Assessment of US Veteran Benefits Policy for Filipino Word War II Veterans," Asian American Policy Review, VII(1997): 163-182, is being retained in the Committee files.]