Stimulus To Repay Debt To WWII Filipino Veterans

The economic stimulus bill signed by President Obama contains $198 million to pay a long-overdue debt to Philippine veterans of World War II. They were promised payments for fighting the Japanese but never were paid. Some of those war veterans in California desperately need the money.

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Most of the stimulus money flowing from Washington is intended to create jobs or preserve them. But some of the money - $198 million, to be precise - will be used to pay an old debt. It goes to Filipino veterans of World War II. They helped the United States defeat Japan in the Pacific. The Filipino fighters never got the money that America promised them.

And as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, some of them clearly need it now.

RICHARD GONZALES: The men who can tell stories of fighting hand-to-hand against the Japanese in the jungles of their native Philippines can still be found in rundown and dilapidated single-occupancy hotel rooms.

(Soundbite of banging)

GONZALES: They are men like 85-year-old Faustino Abago. His room in a San Francisco tenement carries a strong odor of mold and mildew. Many of Abago's teeth are missing, and he struggles to tell his story.

Mr. FAUSTINO ABAGO (World War II Veteran): It's very hard to explain.

GONZALES: That is until he opens his shirt and points to a massive scar covering most of his chest.

Mr. ABAGO: Shrapnel of the hand grenade of the Japanese army.

GONZALES: So that was shrapnel from a Japanese grenade?

Mr. ABAGO: Japanese army. That I'm claiming my pension.

GONZALES: This, says Abago, is why I'm claiming my pension.

Abago is one of more than 200,000 Filipinos who, during World War II, pledged loyalty to the United States. They were made U.S. citizens and promised veterans benefits for fighting alongside American soldiers. But in 1946, President Harry Truman signed a law stripping the Filipinos of their citizenship and reversing the promise of benefits.

Over the years, they pressed their claims and some regained their citizenship. Finally, this year, in President Obama's economic stimulus package, there's money for the old Filipino fighters: $15,000 for U.S. citizens, $9,000 for non-citizens.

Mr. PEDRO TAVOR(ph) (World War II veteran): I will just have to say thank you for those who have passed the bill.

GONZALES: Pedro Tavor is one of the Filipino vets and a member of the American Legion. He's at a party to celebrate the news.

Mr. TAVOR: Because we have been expecting this for more than 62 years until now. I hope it will really come.

GONZALES: But the one-time payment is in lieu of a monthly pension and survivor's benefits. It also releases the government from any future claims. It's all getting mixed reviews in the Filipino-American community.

Ms. LOURDES TANCINCO (Attorney): Well, I call it bittersweet victory.

GONZALES: Lourdes Tancinco, an attorney who represents the veterans, says she's happy, because in an ailing economy $198 million is real money. And it will help the surviving veterans.

Ms. TANCINCO: At the same time, I feel bitter also, because I think of the veterans who just passed away last week or during the last years that we've been here. They've been hoping for this to happen, to be recognized, but there's nothing, nothing in the stimulus package that would benefit them.

GONZALES: There is some criticism that compensation, even if justified, has no place in the bill designed to create jobs. But to the Filipino vets, it represents long overdue recognition.

Unidentified Man: You still remember how to march, right?

GROUP: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: All right.

GONZALES: In San Francisco last week, about two dozen of the old veterans lined up behind an R.O.T.C. color guard. They gather each year to remember the day Truman stripped them of their benefits. But this year, it was more of a celebration. The old men, all in their '80s and '90s, struggled to keep up, but they kept marching.

Mr. RUDY ASSERTION(ph) (American Legion): Well, this is a victory for them because it's a very historic occasion.

GONZALES: Rudy Assertion is a member of the American Legion and a longtime veteran supporter.

Mr. ASSERTION: Because after 63 years of fighting for their honor and their dignity to be restored, finally, President Obama signed a law that restores their honor and dignity.

GONZALES: Assertion says the money probably isn't enough. But then he asks how do you compensate a soldier who gave the best years of his life?

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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