November 2, 2007

Filipino veterans press for pension benefits

By James Baetke

WASHINGTON - Former Filipino guerrilla fighter Fred Diaz lives on $654 a month from Social Security, but after 15 years of rallies and marches, the 91-year-old World War II veteran said he’s tired of waiting for a better pension plan.

“It’s very difficult to get by, to live,” said Diaz of Jersey City, N.J.

Diaz and about 10 other Filipino war veterans and widows paid tribute to fallen comrades at the National World War II Memorial Wednesday to mark All Souls Day, a Catholic holy day remembering the departed.

The group held two banners calling for pension equity for the nearly 6,000 Filipino veterans living in the United States and 12,000 residing in their home country. Later, the veterans placed a wreath at the memorial and chanted a war song for the deceased.

In the months before and after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in World War II, 250,000 Filipinos joined the U.S. Armed Forces and, as many Filipino veterans have argued, were promised equal benefits to that of their American counterparts.

“Many of us are dying every day,” said Franco Arcebal, an 84-year-old from Los Angeles. “But we are very close to the end of the tunnel.”

The discrepancy between the Filipino veterans’ pensions and those of U.S. citizens fell by the wayside after the former territory gained independence in 1946. Previous bills to provide larger pensions have died.

Legislators are debating the details of a new proposal now, including how much the pension should be. Estimates fall between $100 and $300 a month. Filipino veterans are eligible for Veterans Affairs hospital treatment and other services. Separate House and Senate bills await floor action.

Many of the veterans, who are mostly in their 80s and 90s, are worried they won’t see any money if Congress cannot pass a bill before adjourning for the year, probably in mid-November.

Arcebal said Filipino veterans are willing to compromise on the monthly amount they would get.

“We just want a compromise,” he said. “We’re not asking for retroactive benefits.”

The American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, an advocacy group for Filipino pension equity, estimates that if veterans were paid $300 a month it would cost the U.S. $50 million a year.

“Right now, Congress is trying to find a bipartisan solution to the issue,” said Eric Lachica, the coalition’s executive director. “We don’t want to wait ‘til next year.”

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