MY father-in-law, Jose Nobleza, Sr., and my eldest brother, Wilfredo, did not live long enough to see this happen, but 99-year old Celestino Almeda of Gaithersburg, Maryland still walks the corridors of power in Washington DC, eagerly waiting for President Barack Obama to sign into law, S. 1555, The Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015.
Almeda is one of only 18,000 surviving veterans, out of 260,000 young Filipinos who answered the call to arms of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt upon the invasion of the Philippines by Japanese Imperial Forces.
Both the living and the dead will finally be accorded America’s highest civilian honor for their courage, heroism and sacrifices, by the same U.S. Congress that passed the grossly unjust Rescission Act of 1946 that specifically denied veterans’ benefits to Filipinos who had fought under the American flag in World War II.
The Congressional Gold Medal Act was finally passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last November 30. It had been earlier passed by the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent. Signing it into law may be one of the last official acts of the Obama presidency.
Filipino and Filipino-American veterans will soon be part of the same roster of heroes headed in March 1776 by the first Congressional Gold Medal recipient, George Washington – a roster that includes America’s most honored men and women, including revolutionary hero, John Paul Jones, Major Generals Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. John J. Pershing, Rev. Martin Luther King, Thomas Edison, Charles Lindberg and, among military units, the Navajo Code Talkers, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Japanese-American Nisei infantry men and intelligence officers who fought in the European theater in spite of the incarceration of ethnic Japanese in America at the outbreak of World War II.
The roster also includes South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, the United Kingdom’s Sir Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Harry S. Truman, athletes Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, Hollywood icons, Walt Disney, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne, and astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., Michael Collins and John Glenn, Jr. to mention the personalities most familiar to Pinoys.
The Congressional Gold Medal will be minted by the U.S. Treasury, to the tune of approximately $33,000, and put on permanent public display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, along with all the other medals. Replicas will be made available to veterans and their living relatives in ceremonies being planned in the U.S. and in the Philippines. To cover the cost of the replicas and thus make them available for free to the recipients, a fund-raising effort will be mounted by the same FilAms that President Rodrigo Duterte dismissed as being inconsequential (“They do not count!”), on one of his foot-in-mouth moments.
Indeed, it is a rarified pantheon on which our Filipino veterans will be placed. But reaching that apex required tremendous audacity and unrelenting efforts by Fil-Ams, led by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (U.S. Army, retired), chairman of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP).
Taguba is the same general who exposed U.S. atrocities in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq at great risk to his military career. Despite being lionized by the U.S. Congress and American media, Taguba was eased out of the service by Pentagon quarters.
According to Bing Cardenas Branigin, Washington DC-based Fil-Am community leader and former staffer of the late Minister Greg Cendaña’s Malacañang press office, Taguba had been involved in securing approval for the Congressional Gold Medal of the Japanese-American Nisei units. Branigin assisted Taguba in the distribution of medals to the aging recipients. And it occurred to them that Filipino World War II veterans deserved the same honor.
In 2003, Taguba, retired Maj. Gen. Delfin Lorenzana (then head of the Office of Veterans Affairs at the Philippine embassy in Washington DC and now Secretary of National Defense under Duterte), NaFFAA co-founder Jon Melegrito, Marie Blanco and Jude Saunders met at the Dubliner Irish Pub in the nation’s capital to discuss the idea of national recognition for the Filipino veterans, All they had to start with was a firm belief in their cause. Recalled Ben de Guzman, FilVetREP’s Outreach Director, there was an outpouring of support for the cause which soon became a national campaign.
“A coalition of national advocacy groups serving Filipino Americans, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, veterans service organizations, and countless local organizations and advocates at the local level took part in this national campaign. Their engagement with their senators and representatives in the last 17 months was instrumental in moving the CGM legislation forward,” de Guzman said. “Without grassroots support, it would have been difficult to mount the kind of campaign needed to bring us to this historic moment, which we celebrate with pride today.”
When the U.S. House of Representatives finally approved the bill, Taguba exulted: “Today is truly a great day, a significant seminal period in American history – second only to the liberation of the Philippines and surrender of the Japanese Imperial Forces on August 15, 1945. Now we can tell our veterans with pride in our hearts that this grateful nation has, at last, granted them recognition for the selfless sacrifice they endured in war, and restored their dignity and honor in service to their nation.”
The Filipino Veterans of WWII Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015 was introduced in June 2015 in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), with U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) as lead co-sponsor, and in the House by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI-2), with U.S. Rep. Joseph Heck (R-Nev.-3) as lead co-sponsor.
All over the U.S., Fil-Am community leaders called on their congressional representatives to support the bill, while other ethnic groups did their own due diligence. The efforts paid off. There was some apprehension with the electoral victory of Donald Trump that the bill would not get the needed support before the adjournment of the current Congress. But last minute efforts by the proponents resulted in 312 cosponsors in the House, complementing the prior Senate approval.
One final act is needed to complete this impressive story. A stroke of the pen by President Obama and Filipinos and Filipino-American fighting men will have an indelible place in American history. (firstname.lastname@example.org)