WASHINGTON (CN) - Some 70 years after Celestino Almeda helped the United States liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation, bureaucratic red tape has kept the World War II veteran fighting for recognition of his service.
Almeda’s long tour finally ended Monday with a settlement on the $15,000 veterans benefit promised by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Some laws are legal and moral,” said Almeda, speaking in August at his home in Gaithersburg, Md. “Some practices are moral but not legal. There are those that are legal but are immoral. As in my case. I was denied benefit because of the Rescission Act of 1946.”
Though the U.S. recognized Philippine independence after the dust from WWII had settled, the Rescission Act signed by President Harry S. Truman denied citizenship and military benefits to the more than 260,000 Filipino soldiers who had served alongside U.S. forces in the struggle.
The issue lingered until 2009 when Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, allowing eligible veterans to claim a one-time lump sum benefit from the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund.
As a U.S. citizen since 1996, the law entitled Almeda to a $15,000 payment. Noncitizen Filipino soldiers were eligible for $9,000.
Almeda submitted his application for the benefit on Feb. 18, 2009 - the day after President Barack Obama signed the bill into law. The VA declared Almeda ineligible, however, because his name does not appear on a roster that was created as WWII came to an end.
Seth Watkins, an attorney for Almeda with the firm Watkins Law & Advocacy, notes that the revised reconstructed guerrilla roster, otherwise known as the Missouri list, was assembled at a chaotic time.
"Not everybody's name made it onto that list," Watkins said during an August interview at his centenarian client’s home.
In fighting the case, Almeda held up decades-old documents to substantiate his service.
Kept in a carefully organized binder at home, Almeda called those documents with their brown, tattered edges his only "bullet" in his nearly nine-year fight with the VA.
"That's all of my armament so that I could keep fighting," he said in August.
For Almeda, memories of the war's carnage are still easily recalled. He described seeing corpses heaped on top of one another, sometimes piled into a single coffin. They used some powder, he said - perhaps lime - to remove the stench of dead bodies.
Such macabre sights have brought little shade, however, to Almeda’s outlook.
"You cannot see the brighter side of life if you have not seen the darkest side of life," he said. "I'm very thankful with the freedom that we are having now."
Still sharp and spirited as he heads toward his 101st birthday in June, Almeda called his years-long struggle to get veteran benefits one of principle and respect, not money.
"I want to meet my creator with a light heart, that my service are recognized. That's all," he said. "I'm after the dignity of recognizing my service."
VA records say the agency has processed 42,755 applications for the benefit. It approved 18, 977 - about 45 percent of them - awarding roughly $226 million to eligible veterans.
Today more than $56 million remains in the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund.