WASHINGTON (CN) – A 90-year-old Filipino woman filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday to wrest away records she needs to secure a military benefit she claims to be owed for bolstering allied efforts in the Pacific during World War II.
Feliciana Reyes, now of Panorama City, Calif., sued the National Archives and Records Administration on July 26, seeking records she believes it holds that would show the Department of Veteran Affairs wrongly denied her benefits that were specifically set aside for Filipinos.
According to the 19-page complaint, Reyes served as a ward attendant in a Filipino resistance movement to oppose Japan’s invasion. The guerilla movement, parts of which were under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was critical to U.S. efforts to liberate the Philippines.
Between 1944 and 1945 Reyes treated wounds and attended to sick soldiers in the Medical Corp of the 75th Infantry Regiment, which was recognized by MacArthur, the complaint states.
After the war President Harry Truman tried unsuccessfully to secure recognition of the Filipino guerillas who fought with U.S. forces, but Congress thwarted his efforts in 1946 with legislation that barred Filipinos from receiving veterans benefits.
Reyes’ attorney Seth Watkins, with Watkins Law & Advocacy in Washington, called this unconscionable.
“If you served on behalf of the United States and you put your life on the line, and you were a guerilla and you had been promised benefits, Congress took them away,” Watkins said in a phone interview.
Nearly 50 years later, Congress enacted the Recovery Act in 2009, in part to soothe lingering resentment among Filipino veterans that their service was unappreciated, the complaint says.
The law entitled Filipino guerillas to one-time payments of $9,000 for Filipino citizens and $15,000 for U.S. citizens from the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund.
Congress set aside roughly $200 million for the fund, but veterans had only a one year window to apply.
Reyes came to the U.S. shortly after the war ended, and later became a U.S. citizen, entitling her to $15,000.
But the Department of Veterans Affairs denied Reyes’ application for benefits, insisting that she did not perform recognized service, despite an affidavit that says otherwise.
“The only thing that the Army will use to certify that you served, is the official roster, which is just a list of names that goes on and on and on,” Watkins said.
According to the complaint, Reyes is not alone. Veterans Affairs has denied 56 percent of all claims, the lawsuit says.
An Army report unearthed during the Obama administration helped explain why.
The report had been declassified in 1988, but was found sitting in a safe at the National Archives.
The report revealed that women guerrillas, except for nurses, were excluded from recognition. As a result Reyes’ name is not on the report’s roster.
Reyes is appealing the denial of veterans benefits, which she applied for 7 years ago, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, arguing that Veterans Affairs unconstitutionally discriminated against Filipino women. But the VA has argued that the report’s authenticity is unverified, and said they didn’t have actual knowledge of the report.
“They’re trying to say that it shouldn’t count for the purposes of her appeal because they didn’t legally know about it. But they sat on the task force that released it,” Watkins said.
Because discovery is not allowed on veterans’ benefits claims, Reyes filed a FOIA request on March 21 with the National Archives. She asked for all additional records about the Interagency Working Group that relate to the Army report.
According to Watkins, the requested information could provide further evidence demonstrating that the VA knew about the report all along, which might help with the repeal process.
That information will also benefit the tens of thousands of other applicants who the VA denied benefits to, the complaint states.
Although the National Archives granted her request for expedited processing on appeal, the complaint claims the agency has yet to release any records to her.
According to Watkins, for most of these veterans the issue is about respect, not money.
“We have plenty of proof that these people served. They’ve earned the right to be recognized and to be shown some respect,” Watkins said. “And this is the last chance to do it before none of them are alive anymore. We’re running out of time.”
Reyes is asking the court to require the National Archives to promptly search for and release the requested information.
A representative of the National Archives declined to comment on the pending litigation.