The Fil-Am issue

House should vote for Filipino vets



Recently, Manuel Braga attended the funeral of yet another friend and World War II veteran.

As the body of James Mijares was lowered into a grave, all Braga, 81, could think was that another friend had died waiting for something he earned that never arrived: the veterans’ benefits the U.S. government promised in 1942.

Braga and Mijares, both Filipinos, fought in World War II under the U.S. flag. Ironically, the weekend of Mijares’ funeral was also the 67th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ordering into service the Armed Forces of the Philippines, an American commonwealth. But the U.S. Congress went back on its promise in 1946 when it passed a bill that specifically yanked benefits from Filipino veterans.

As Congress comes back into session this month, we will have in the House of Representatives one more opportunity to right this wrong. In April, the Senate passed the Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act by an overwhelming 96-1 vote, with all the World War II veterans from that chamber standing behind their Filipino comrades.

Now it is our turn in the House. And this is not just about benefits for a few surviving heroes; it is also about our honor as a country and a legislative body. If we are a country of promise making, we should also be a country of promise keeping.

More than 250,000 Filipinos fought, bled and sometimes died next to the soldiers of America’s “Greatest Generation.” Many suffered through the infamous Bataan Death March and many, such as Braga, later served during Japan’s occupation. Braga’s legs were wounded by the Japanese, and he was infected with tuberculosis as he fought a guerrilla war, holding out even after the Japanese Army pushed Gen. Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor, the last American stronghold in the Philippines.

Of all the Filipinos ordered into combat by Roosevelt, only 18,000 are alive today, with each passing day bringing another funeral.

The bill before the House would qualify these men to receive benefits for which other WWII veterans are eligible. It would use the same disability and income formulas for their Filipino comrades.

Those who oppose the bill argue that foreigners would be receiving veterans’ benefits. Let us not forget that, during WWII, the Philippines had been a commonwealth since being acquired by the United States in 1898 during the war against Spain — and that it was made subordinate to the American military.

Most importantly, when these men bled all over the Pacific Theater, they bled for the same cause as our soldiers who came from Kansas and California. They bled because of the same flag and from bullets fired by the same enemy.

Some argue this bill would take benefits away from American veterans. That is not true. The bill is fiscally responsible, paying for itself by closing a loophole that gives double payments to some veterans. The loophole would be closed for future instances but would not revoke benefits from any veteran currently receiving them.

Further, the act actually enhances benefits for other American veterans. Only one-third of its $853 million would restore benefits to Filipino veterans. The other two-thirds would pay for benefits such as adaptive automobile equipment for American veterans with severe burns and would help veterans obtain life insurance.

This bill responsibly refocuses priorities and fixes a mistake we made as a government more than six decades ago. One American virtue is that when we have made mistakes as a country, we have had the courage to fix them. This fix needs to happen soon so that it will be meaningful.

The hourglass has only a few grains left for old heroes such as Braga. He has been fighting for this recognition since 1969, when he joined a group seeking equity. Most in that group, including Mijares, have died waiting.

Funerals are sad enough occasions for Braga. We can, and should, give him the recognition he deserves before it is too late.

Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat, and Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican, represent California in the U.S. House of Representatives.