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.
Attorney Watkins said in an email Monday that the settlement precludes a binding legal precedent that would extend to others like his client, something he had hoped a victorious appeal might do.
He nonetheless expressed optimism.
“This truly is a personal victory for Mr. Almeda and perhaps amounts to a breakthrough in legal efforts to vindicate Filipinos who have been denied recognition of their important service during World War II,” Watkins said.
VA press secretary Curt Cashour characterized the $15,000 settlement with Almeda as “acknowledgement of his service which contributed to the war effort during World War II.”
Watkins noted Monday that he is still prepared to continue his challenge to the eligibility criteria for the benefit in a separate case. The VA, he said, has ignored the plain text of the 2009 law by relying only on the Missouri list to determine eligibility, which he said leaves many veterans who served – like Almeda – out of luck.
According to the law, eligible veterans include those who served “before July 1, 1946, in the organized military forces of the Government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, while such forces were in the service of the Armed Forces of the United States pursuant to the military order of the President dated July 26, 1941.”
That includes service among organized guerrilla forces that were recognized by the U.S.
Among the records Almeda preserved in his binder at home is an affidavit for Philippine Army personnel dated April 2, 1946, and signed by First Lt. John B. Staples. It lists all of Almeda’s service, and shows his service in a recognized guerilla force and in the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, which Watkins says qualifies Almeda for the benefit.
Watkins said the VA labeled the affidavit a Philippine document, not a U.S. Army service document.
“That is completely false,” Watkins said. “It’s a United States Army document. It was signed by a United States Army officer. It was designed by the United States Army.”
Watkins and Almeda had hoped on appeal to prove that the VA acted arbitrarily by relying on a veteran’s inclusion on the Missouri list, despite affidavits that document a veteran’s service.
Although the law says who is eligible, it doesn’t specify what documentation is required to prove eligibility.
Watkins said Congress gave the VA broad authority to decide that, but that the VA shifted responsibility of verifying a veteran’s service to the Army, which in turn kicked the can over to the National Archives, which requires a veteran’s name to appear on the Missouri list.
Representatives for the government offered little insight as to whether the VA complies with the law in requiring a veteran’s name to appear on the Missouri list, and why the VA tied eligibility for the benefit to that document instead of others showing eligible military service in the Philippines during WWII.
“VA is legally bound by determinations of the appropriate U.S. military service department as to whether there was qualifying service,” a representative for the VA said in an email. “For claims requiring verification of Philippine service in WWII, this is the National Personnel Records Center, which acts as the custodian of the U.S. Army’s collection of Philippine Army and Guerrilla records.”
The VA deferred to the National Records Center at the National Archives, which in turn deferred to the Department of the Army. Public affairs officer Hank Minitrez said in an email that he “cannot comment on individual cases.”
At his home in August, Almeda flipped through another binder, several inches thick, documenting his nearly nine-year struggle to get the VA benefit.
“All we were arguing about is $15,000,” Almeda said, sitting in a recliner with the files. “The work involved in issuing these statements of paper is more than $15,000. So where is the mathematics there.”
Watkins said at the time that the VA would like the issue to disappear.
“All of the people who are left who are claiming these benefits, they’re very elderly,” the attorney said. “Many of them are, they’re not surviving long enough to fight the fight.”
Watkins noted that the law gave veterans one year to apply for the benefit, and that very few of those who were denied have appealed. After so many years, Watkins said the VA would likely be embarrassed if they could prove the agency had misapplied the law.
“But, they should do the right thing,” he said. “So if they got it wrong, they should fix it, and they should fix it for anybody who’s still alive who has this documentary evidence.”