by Perry Diaz
You mention HR 677 and chances are you will get varied reactions from Filipino-Americans. For those who have not heard about it, you would probably have to explain a lot of details before they could understand the issue and then ask you questions which would make you wonder if you understood what you were trying to articulate in the first place. And for those who have heard something about HR 677, watch out because you would probably hear different accounts of what it is all about.
HR 677 — introduced in the 108th Congress and known as the “Filipino Veterans Equity Act of 2003” — was authored by Representative Randall Cunningham (Republican, California). The purpose of the bill is “to amend Title 38, United States Code, to deem certain service in the organized military forces of the Government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines and the Philippine Scouts to have been active service for purposes of benefits under programs administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.” That is the one-sentence language of the bill. As simple as it may sound, HR 677 is a complicated piece of legislation, depending on whom you are talking to.
I checked the status of HR 677 and the congressional records revealed that on February 11, 2003, it was introduced and referred to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and on March 12, 2003, it was referred to the Subcommittee on Benefits. That was just the first step — “Introduced” — in the legislative process. Subsequent steps to be followed are: Scheduled for Debate/Floor Vote in the House, Passed/Failed House, Moved to the Senate/Vote in the Senate, Passed/Failed Senate, Sent to the President, Signed by President. Since the bill is still in the “Introduced” stage, and the 108th Congress is now in “lame duck” session, HR 677 is virtually dead.
One self-proclaimed Fil-Am veterans’ leader talked about the “injustice caused by the Rescission Act.” By the same token, he mentioned that “the mere mention of a FilAm Equity Bill is a turn off to most Americans who equate it to retroactive pay from 1939 – an initiative that the American Legion also find (sic) difficult to support.” He talked about “injustice” and then cautions you against using the word “Equity.” Quite an oxymoron, isn’t it? It’s like walking a tight rope with a safety net a foot below the rope. But what is interesting is that, while he talked with an appearance of authority, he made the wrong assumption that HR 677 asked for retroactive pay from 1939. There is no such provision in HR 677.
Meanwhile, several Filipino-American community leaders have criticized the Republicans for the failure to pass HR 677. They claimed that there are 191 Democratic co-sponsors and only 16 Republican co-sponsors. They insist that if there were more Republican co-sponsors, HR 677 would have passed. Apparently, these Filipino-American community leaders were under the impression that if they have enough votes on the floor, the House Veterans’ Committee would release the bill for a vote on the floor. That would not be the case. The Subcommittee on Benefits — where the bill was referred to — has yet to complete its assignment.
In the Midwest, a small group of veterans — about thirty-strong — is still actively seeking co-sponsors for HR 677 hoping that the bill will be released for a floor vote before the 108th Congress adjourns. With only a few weeks left in the “lame duck” 108th Congress, I doubt if HR 677 will ever see the light of day again. Meanwhile, this group is working on a “novel” proposal. According to a representative of the Veterans Federation of the Philippines (VFP), the official organization representing the Philippine-based veterans, this Midwest group has proposed a draft of a bill — released via the Internet — that would only provide monthly benefits to US-based Filipino veterans at the rate of $800 per month. Philippine-based veterans will not be included in this proposed bill. This “novel” proposal has ignited a cauldron of controversy pitting representatives of the VFP against the authors — self-proclaimed advocates of Filipino World War II veterans — of this “novel” proposal . While it would appear like a few veterans would get their “thirty pieces of silver,” this “novel” equity bill is anathema to the Philippine-based veterans. After all those years of fighting for equity, the Philippine-based veterans felt that they have been sold out by a few self-serving nefarious individuals — none of which has ever served in the military — who, in their self-glorification pronouncements, claim to represent all of the Filipino veterans.
After 58 years of trying to restore the benefits lost as a result of the discriminatory Rescission Act of 1946, the fragmented Filipino World War II Veterans movement has a hard time working together in unison. Filipino-American community leaders in conjunction with several veterans groups scattered throughout the United States, have been at the forefront of the Equity Bill legislation. While several small pieces of benefits have passed the US Congress and signed into law in recent years, a process that became known as “Step by Step,” the final fight for full equity — known as “All or Nothing” — has led to “nothing.”
There have been discussions that HR 677 is flawed. Nobody has specifically identified the “flaw” in HR 677. However, in my opinion, the flaw is that the bill would require the annual disbursement of about $200 million in benefits to the Filipino veterans. The question is: Is there enough money in the US government’s 2005-2006 fiscal year budget to initially fund the HR 677 disbursement in the coming fiscal year? Shouldn’t HR 677 have addressed the budgetary source of the funds?
Perhaps, it is time to think outside the box. With their ranks dwindling pretty fast, the less than 30,000 surviving Filipino veterans — about 20,000 of which are Philippine-based — are now in the twilight of their lives. We need to put a dignified and equitable closure to their sad plight. They put their lives on the line for the United States, it is just fitting that that they be treated just like any American veterans.
The Filipino Veterans Equity Bill Task Force has been organized to review the issues on HR 677 and determine what is a realistic and equitable bill that would pass the legislative requirements of the US Congress. It is often said that soldiers will never leave a comrade behind in the battlefield — dead or alive. This should also be true for those who survived the war. They should remain the “band of brothers” that they were 60 years ago — protecting each other from those who would attempt to divide them and conquer their will to fight for one more battle that will give them a final glorious moment in their lives. General Douglas MacArthur said in his farewell speech at the military academy in West Point, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” But let us not forget that as the Filipino veterans fade away, we must make sure that dignity and honor be bestowed upon these heroes.