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The Simple Dignity of Recognition: Filipino Word War II Veterans and the Congressional Gold Medal

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 19/02/2016 Ben de Guzman
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This time of the year in February is laden with historical meaning for those of us who work with Filipino WWII veterans. This February 17th marks the seventh anniversary of the creation of the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund and the legislative victory the community was able to win for them. February 18th marks the 70th anniversary of the passage of the 1946 Rescission Act, which first revoked U.S. veterans status for the more than 200,000 Filipinos who were called into service by President Roosevelt into the U.S. Armed Forces of the Far East. After serving in some of the most grueling conditions anywhere in the war, such as the infamous Bataan Death March, the Rescission Act was the "original sin" of Filipino veterans equity- a slap in the face to these soldiers and to their service. For the seven decades since, these men and women have had to fight for the simple dignity of having their service recognized.
As we mark this year's anniversaries, we do also at a particularly opportune moment politically for the work to improve the lives of these veterans and their families. This year, the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP) is marking the anniversary with a slate of national activity for its campaign to call on the House and Senate to pass legislation to give a Congressional Gold Medal to these veterans. Under the leadership of people such as Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba (Ret.) and Marie Blanco, Senator Daniel Inouye's (D-HI) final Chief of Staff before his passing in 2012, in tandem with leaders and advocates in Washington, DC, and in local communities around the country, our team is meeting directly with Congressional offices to bring the stories of our veterans directly to lawmakers and put a human face on Senate Bill 1555 and House Bill 2737- the Filipino World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Act. In Washington, DC alone, we met with eighteen Senate offices within that last two weeks. A social media mini-campaign got traction for our online petition with over 700 signatories in just under three days. We also continue to monitor the other issues related to our veterans, including President Obama's intent to help Filipino WWII veterans reunite with their families and the recently announced proposed policies to do so.
Our work on behalf of the Filipino WWII veterans has become a unifying rallying cry for the Filipino American community, and has also transcended traditional identity politics of self-interest. Veterans groups have always been supportive of the struggle of their Filipino brothers in arms and last year the Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a national resolution of support for this legislation. Many of the signatories to our online petition are, no doubt, people swayed not only through personal impact for Filipino veterans in their families, but by their compelling story of sacrifice and struggle. For all of us, a Congressional Gold Medal for these veterans would be redemption for their years of being denied the truth that their battle scars tell them every day.
One particularly powerful example of solidarity came from the cast of the recently concluded Broadway show, Allegiance. The story this musical tells of a Japanese family's internment during WWII speaks to this history as well. On one hand, Filipina musical star Lea Salonga's leading role guaranteed that the show's audiences were always packed with Filipino Americans during its run. At the same time, from an historical perspective, right after the February 17th and February 18th anniversaries, February 19th is remembered as the anniversary of Executive Order 9066, the act that put 120,000 Americans of Japanese Americans internment camps.
At one of the last Q&A sessions the cast held for audiences after the show, I was able to invoke this common history and ask what it meant to cast stars George Takei, Telly Leung, and Greg Watanabe. All of them reaffirmed their support for Filipino WWII veterans and the role that history, their musical, and things like the Congressional Gold Medal, are important because they remind us that even when our institutions fail us, the courage to continue the fight regardless has its own dignity and that we must all honor that dignity however we can. Whether through song or through legislation, we use this time now to recommit ourselves to honoring the brave veterans whose lives bear witness to that dignity every day.

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