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Filipino WWII vets win Senate vote on benefits

Times Staff Writers

Sixty-three years after the end of World War II, an aging and dwindling group of Filipino veterans who fought alongside American forces against the Japanese is nearing victory in its long legislative battle for military benefits.

The Senate approved a measure Thursday that would expand benefits to those veterans, many of whom live in California. The House is expected to take up a similar measure before the end of the year.

“We have been waiting for this for the last 60 years; you can imagine how happy we are,” said Faustino “Peping” Baclig, 86, a former guerrilla officer and survivor of the Bataan Death March who is now a U.S. citizen living in Whittier.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), a World War II veteran and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, sponsored the measure. “The Filipino veterans of World War II fought bravely under U.S. military command, helping us win the war,” he said. “I commend my colleagues for supporting those veterans who stood with us.”

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Republican opposition to creating a new pension benefit had blocked action on the Filipino provision until Thursday’s vote. But debate over the measure, part of a larger bill to expand or extend benefits to all veterans, split along a generational divide, with WWII veterans from both parties backing the bill.

“I see this as a matter of honor,” said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who noted that there were only five WWII vets left in the Senate. “I know some of my younger colleagues might see this as expensive. About 1 million Filipinos were killed in defense of our country. This bill restores their benefits . . . how long can that last? I appeal to the Senate.”

The Senate voted 56 to 41 to defeat an effort by Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) to redirect the pension funds toward U.S. veterans.

The veterans bill, which passed 96 to 1, would enhance life insurance benefits for disabled veterans younger than 65 and for veterans who have suffered traumatic injuries since 2001. It would also increase some housing benefits for veterans with severe burn injuries and augment some labor and education benefits for veterans.

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The bill is expected to cost less than $1 billion over five years, but is “budget neutral,” meaning its cost has been covered with savings found elsewhere.

The Filipino veterans provision creates about $250 million in new benefits over 10 years. Of that, about $84 million will go to Filipinos in the United States for such benefits as grants to modify homes for disabled vets. The other $166 million would pay pension benefits to Filipino veterans in the Philippines who fought under U.S. command but were not injured. There are about 6,000 Filipino veterans in the U.S. and 12,000 in the Philippines.

The measure faces an uncertain fate, as the Bush administration has expressed concern about the cost of expanding the benefits to Filipino veterans living in the Philippines.

Filipino veterans, many now in their 80s and 90s, have waged a decades-long struggle to secure benefits they say were promised when they responded to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call in 1941 to fight the Japanese.

Many fought as regular soldiers in the U.S armed forces and received regular benefits. But many more fought in Philippine forces that were under the command of the U.S. military.

A 1942 legal opinion by the Veterans Administration determined that the soldiers were eligible for benefits on the same basis as U.S. veterans. But many saw that decision as disproportionately benefiting Filipinos because of the lower cost of living in the Philippines. In 1946, Congress decided those soldiers would “not be deemed to be or to have been” in the military.

Over the years, Filipino veterans, many of whom survived the infamous Bataan Death March, chained themselves to the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, their former commander, in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park, and to the White House fence to call attention to their cause.

Senate Republicans argued that the $166 million that the pension provision is projected to cost would be better spent on U.S. troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. They pointed out that the U.S. has invested heavily in the Philippines and that injured Filipino veterans get full benefits, including special burial rates and access to veterans hospitals.

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“I’m not sure anyone can say we didn’t do our share,” Burr said. His amendment would have used the money to help injured U.S. veterans modify homes and vehicles, as well as increase burial benefits for families of veterans who die in service or from related injuries.

Burr said Thursday’s vote “is quite frankly about our veterans today.” He acknowledged the debt of WWII veterans, including his own 87-year-old father, who served in the Pacific, and the painful nature of the debate over the Filipino provision.

“I hope this is the last time while I’m here that . . . the veterans committee brings a bill to the floor that does not have bipartisan support,” he said.

The Senate’s veterans delivered passionate speeches in favor of the measure. “This bill has a provision of honor,” said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), a cosponsor of the measure who lost an arm while fighting with the Japanese American 442nd Regiment in Italy.

Stevens gave younger members of the Senate a small refresher course in the war’s history. “These people were the keys to the Pacific,” he said. “Without them, we would have seen war for another few years. They gave us the time to survive.”

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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