by Joseph Pimentel/Asianjournal.com
LOS ANGELES — The Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2007 has gone through its shares of ups and downs this year.
If passed, an estimated 7,000 Filipino American veterans living in the US and 12,000 Filipino veterans in the Philippines, who both fought during WWII, would restore US Veterans status and be eligible for Veterans Affairs (VA) disability pension benefits.
As the year ends, what had started as promising for many Filipino veterans and their supporters now looks bleak.
“It has been a disappointment,” admitted Dr. Jenny Batongmalaque, the Executive Director of the Filipino Veterans Foundation. “Our main goal is to get that recognition for our veterans so they can finally receive their benefits.”
“Many have died without their benefits,” she added. “However, the door is not fully closed yet.”
Early in the year, things looked favorable when Democrats became a majority in the US House of Representatives and Senate.
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI) re-filed the bill as S. 57, “The Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2007,” when Congress opened Jan. 4. Rep. Bob Filner followed suit soon after holding a full committee hearing at the US House of Representatives House Committee of Veterans’ Affairs in February.
The bill picked up steam as the months went by when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) expressed her support for the bill. Both Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) also lent their hand in support of the bill.
Led by Filner and Akaka, the two respective Chairmen’s of their Veterans Committee have taken the bill further in the US Congress than it ever has before.
The bill passed the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee last June and the House Veterans committee the following month. It had been the first time in 14 years since its introduction in Congress that the Filipino Veterans Equity legislation moved forward.
However, since the FilVet Equity Act passed the two Veterans committees last June and July, the opposition blocked the bill. Republicans repeatedly argued against the bill, citing the overall cost estimating it at nearly $2 billion. Critics also did not favor paying Filipino veterans still residing in the Philippines due to the different standards cost of living between the two countries.
It has been a stalemate since.
Akaka has since added the Filipino Veteran Equity Act as part of the much larger bill S. 1315, the “Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act.” Meanwhile, Filner is waiting for Akaka to pass the bill in the Senate before he presents it in the House.
The Veterans Act in 2008
Sen. Akaka, his representative and Filipino leaders across the nation weighed in on the state of the bill as it heads into the New Year.
Sen. Akaka’s Spokesperson Jesse Broder Van Dyke said Akaka wanted to make sure that the Filipino community knows that the bills remain alive.
“The next Congress does not begin until January 2009. So it is just as possible for the bill [S. 1315] to pass in January, as it is this month. Of course, Senator Akaka wants to get it done as soon as possible,” he said.
“Unfortunately, Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) and others on the Republican side have been actively blocking its consideration on the Senate floor,” added Broder Van Dyke.
During his floor presentation last Dec. 12, Akaka called for the passage of this legislation.
“S. 1315 includes benefits for a broad constituency of service members and veterans, particularly those who are service-disabled,” he said. “This bill would also improve benefits for Filipino veterans, virtually all of whom are now in their 80s and 90s.”
“Those who oppose the pension provision in S. 1315 argue that the pension provided is too high,” he added. “However, pension benefits are designed to allow wartime veterans and their survivors to live in dignity – above the poverty level. I am satisfied that the levels of pension designated in this bill – would allow these veterans to live with such dignity, while giving them the recognition they deserve.”
The Executive Director of the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans (ACFV) Eric Lachica said that Filipino and Congressional leaders supporting the bill have achieved a lot this past year.
“We have progressed but we still have not won the war,” he said. “I believe we might have a greater opportunity [to pass the FilVet Equity bill] next year because of the Presidential election and many of the Senators will also be up for election.”
Lachica said that grassroots campaigning is a must next year.
“Because they [the Senators] are up for election, we need to appeal to our leaders and the community to have face to face meetings with their elected officials,” he said.
Veteran and a Member of ACFV Franco Arcebal said that the crux of the issue remains the payment of Filipino WWII veterans residing in the Philippines.
“[Sen.] Craig changed his position last week on the payment of the Filipino soldiers in the Philippines. A few months ago he was willing to give them a $100 a month. Now, he wants to give them nothing,” said Arcebal.
“We’re not entirely broken hearted,” he added. “There is still another Congressional session next year and the Democrats are still running the show. But we do want bi-partisan support of this bill.”
Lachica added that time is running out for these Filipino veterans. He expects a 10 percent mortality rate every year that the bill is not passed.
Lachica and Arcebal predict that talks will heat up sometime in February or March. Batongmalaque hopes it passes in time for the April 9 anniversary of Bataan.
Akaka still remained mum on the timeline when this bill would be passed. He did, however, want to wish the Filipino veterans and supporters a happy holiday.
“Mabuhay and Aloha to my brothers in arms from the Philippines and to all those who support these heroes,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Asian Journal.
“Thank you again for your service to our country. We are fighting to provide you with the recognition you earned and deserve, and I will not rest until the Filipino Veterans Equity Act becomes law. Maligayang Pasko! Or as we say in Hawaii, Mele Kalikimaka. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas with your families,” the email said.