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UCLA Student Honors Filipino Veteran Grandfather

On Veterans Day, UCLA student Antonio Raimundo honors his grandfather who fought in both World War II and the Korean War, and protests the discrimination suffered by Filipino veterans from the U.S. government.

By Barbara Gaerlan

PILIPINO VETERANS TREATED UNJUSTLY

The following opinion piece appeared in the UCLA Daily Bruin (page 9) on November 10, 2003 http://www.dailybruin.ucla.edu/news/articles.asp?id=26238

Antonio Raimundo
DAILY BRUIN COLUMNIST
araimundo@media.ucla.edu

Veteran's Day is supposed to be a day of remembrance dedicated to those who have served our country, a day to honor those who have fought, bled and died for the United States. Some of those heroes, however, are being ignored. They've been humiliated by the U.S. government, denied veteran status, and excluded from veteran medical benefits for decades.

In 1941, President Roosevelt drafted about 200,000 Pilipino soldiers into the American military services. These soldiers fought against the Japanese in World War II under U.S. command. According to Al Garcia from People's Community Organization for Reform and Empowerment, if you count both regular soldiers and irregulars (i.e. guerrillas), the total number of men who fought is closer to 400,000.

And they died, too, by the tens of thousands – more than half were killed in combat.

In exchange for forced induction into the American armed forces, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised the Pilipino soldiers U.S. citizenship and full GI benefits.

But in 1946, the U.S. Congress passed a law, the Rescission Act, that reneged on FDR's promise. This law targeted Pilipino soldiers and made them the only group of foreign-soldier veterans (out of 66 countries) the United States refused to recognize. They were stripped of veteran status, benefits, and were not even granted citizenship until 1990.

Time is running out for these men – only about 30,000 are still alive. But they are much more than just numbers.

My grandfather is among these veterans. He was a participant of the infamous Bataan Death March. In April 1942, after the largest surrender ever of an American army on the Bataan peninsula, the Japanese captured 70,000 prisoners, both American and Pilipino. Some fled, but most were forced to march more than 60 miles through an unforgiving tropical climate to POW Camp O'Donnell. The march gets its name from the 5,000 to 11,000 men who died along the way.

My grandfather walked that long, hot road, guarded by a Japanese soldier. One day, they passed a sugar cane field. Somehow, even though neither spoke the other's language, my grandfather convinced the Japanese soldier to let him pick some sugar cane to eat. The Japanese soldier liked my grandfather because he reminded him of his own son, who also served in the Japanese military. How they managed to communicate is beyond me. Maybe the Japanese man simply realized that they were two regular people stuck in the middle of a senseless situation.

I am sickened to think that, according to our government and despite having fought for his country, a man such as my grandfather is not "entitled" to be honored on Veteran's Day. The approaching holiday only pours salt in the wound.

This problem is not some far-off and abstract government issue – it is right here in California, alive and breathing. It is sometimes difficult to put a face on the victims of the U.S. government's actions because they are often a world away, in places like Iraq, Vietnam or Afghanistan, outside of most Americans' understanding. But Colonel Pedro Crisostomo, my mother's father, lives in Fremont, Calif., and you can go and meet him if you want.

He doesn't get treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospitals. He is not recognized by the government for heroically serving in two American wars (he fought in Korea as well). But he walked the Death March so that I might someday go to college. He walked the Death March to ensure that all of us could live free. It is a terrible shame that I now have to write this column so his service will not go unnoticed.

I suppose that this is a bit dramatic, and maybe unnecessary. Any decent person, when presented with these painful facts cannot feel anything but sympathy and support for these shortchanged men – the issue makes its own case without any help from me. But the problem is, no one knows about their struggle. And that is why I'm writing this column – so that more people are aware of this gross and revolting injustice.

It is my hope that increased awareness will lead to increased support for S. 1213, the Pilipino Veterans Benefits Act, that will grant these veterans some (though not all) of the benefits they were promised. It is about time the government owned up to its shameful treatment of these men and made amends.

As you celebrate this Veteran's Day, remember these forgotten soldiers by writing a letter to your congressman, supporting the Act. Call KCET and ask them to air the PBS documentary, "Second Class Veterans" again. Director Rick Rocamora filmed the lives of some the Pilipino veterans who reside in San Francisco.

Do not let another year pass without recognizing all of our American heroes.


Raimundo is a fifth-year political science and economics student. E-mail him at araimundo@media.ucla.edu.

Center for Southeast Asian Studies