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Filipino War Vets Lose Challenge for Benefits

(CN) - Nearly 30 Filipino veterans of World War II or their widows cannot receive benefits from the United States because they cannot prove they served with U.S. armed forces, a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., ruled.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in February 2009, eligible Filipino veterans who are U.S. citizens can claim one-time payments of $15,000 through the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund. Noncitizens can claim $9,000. The widow of any eligible veteran who dies after timely applying for compensation can receive the benefits.

Ireneo Recinto and six other U.S. citizens and Filipino war veterans filed claims, but the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to make the demanded payments because it said the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis could not verify the plaintiffs' service.

The men never appealed the denial of benefits, believing it would be futile to do so, but they filed suit in October 2010 along with 21 widows of U. S. citizen Filipino war veterans who are not eligible for benefits because their husbands died before Obama enacted the fund.

Both groups sought an injunction, claiming the VA violated their due process by relying on records they say were damaged in a 1973 fire. They also alleged that the fund discriminates and violates the Equal Protection Clause, by providing U.S. citizens with 40 percent more benefits than noncitizens.

Spain ceded control of the Philippine Islands to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. During World War II, Filipinos served in a variety of units, some of which came under the direct control of the U.S. military. Among those called into service by an executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, issued on July 26, 1941, were the regular Philippine Scouts, the new Philippine Scouts, the Guerrilla Services, and more than 100,000 members of the Philippine Commonwealth Army. Obama's compensation system, in effect, piggybacked onto two appropriations bills, enacted in 1946, that limited benefits to one-time payments upon verification of service, and to service-connected disability and death benefits, respectively.

U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong ruled Thursday that the VA has sovereign immunity.

"Generally, the decisions of the VA ... affecting the provision of benefits to veterans or their dependents are 'final and conclusive and may not be reviewed by any other official or by any court,'" she wrote, adding that litigants may appeal certain issues to the Federal Circuit "in limited circumstances."

In challenging the VA's strict reliance on military records in determining service, the plaintiffs failed to meet the burden of proving that the VA "intentionally, and without rational basis, treated the plaintiff differently from others."

Armstrong called the 2009 act a "rational means" of recognizing Filipino war vet contributions, while balancing the burden on the Treasury and the deficit, particularly evidenced by the numbers of surviving widows of Filipino vets, which may now outnumber the vets, themselves.

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