Nearly seventy years after the end of WWII, war veteran Amado Bartolome is fighting what may end up being the final, insurmountable battle of his lifetime — one against American bureaucracy and the rigid processes that have denied him military benefits all these decades. Now 86 years old, Bartolome recounts his time as a Filipino guerrilla, helping U.S. troops find and capture Japanese soldiers that fled into the mountains of East Central Luzon. “If I am not the one scouting, maybe thousands or hundreds American soldiers [would have] died,” he remembered.
Bartolome is just one of many Filipino veterans in this situation today. He lives with his wife in a seniors highrise in Edgewater, on Chicago’s North Side. Together, they survive on $13,000 a year in Social Security benefits and a pension he receives from a job he held at UIC. He does not receive a monthly military compensation that his injury would entitle him to, because he has not been able to prove his service to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The same has been true for Filipino WWII veterans across the U.S., as well as the Philippines.
The U.S. first engaged the Japanese in the Philippines in 1941, disastrously, with General Douglas MacArthur fleeing the islands. But MacArthur returned in 1944 and — with the help of the guerillas — defeated the Japanese. Bartolome served until he was hurt by a Japanese hand grenade.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Congress passed the Rescission Act of 1946, stripping Filipino veterans of their entitlement to all military benefits. Over time, some of those benefits have been restored. Also after the war, the U.S. embarked on an effort to document all the fighting units and individuals that had served its interests in the Philippines.
“(There) was a large-scale campaign in the media to monitor this recognition and to call forward everybody who served,” explained Col. Nicholas Amodeo, Assistant Deputy for Programs for the U.S. Army. “The idea was to make sure everybody who served in any capacity, who had any claim in any of these statuses, came forward.” Amodeo explained that starting in 1946, all Filipino fighters were asked to report to offices in the Philippines with evidence showing when they enlisted, with whom, where they fought, and what they did.
The U.S. and Philippine governments closed this window in 1948. “So we went through a period of time, 5-8 years of reconciliation and review,” said Amodeo, “recognizing and revoking recognition of individuals and units.” Those names that were recognized were added to the roster of names held at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri, the authoritative repository of names of all people considered to have served on behalf of the U.S.
Bartolome’s name is not on that roster. In fact, the National Archives in Maryland has no record of H Company, 2nd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment BMD, ECLGA, with whom Bartolome claims to have served.
But Bartolome can point to piles of papers in his cramped apartment. “File 201 complete,” he said, leafing through them. “Form 23 … .”
Bartolome has saved his discharge papers, gathered affidavits from comrades and commanders attesting to his service, and even holds up a photo of himself posing with a group in uniform. “So everything is here in my whole documents,” he said.
But according to Col. Amodeo, having records in your possession that show you served is not sufficient. “An adjudication may have revoked your recognition, and only when we go through this process do we have the detailed information,” he said. It’s not clear whether that is what happened with Bartolome’s unit.
There are serious consequences for Bartolome. For one, he said he has not been able to receive monthly compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Nor has he been able to claim a more recent benefit that was extended to Filipino veterans in 2009: a lump sum equity payment. As part of the Stimulus Plan, Congress approved one-time payments of $15,000 to Filipino veterans living in the U.S., and $9,000 to those living in the Philippines. For Bartolome, this would amount to more than a year’s income.
Roughly 19,000 Filipino veterans have been able to claim the one-time payment, but roughly 12,000 applicants who claim to have served were turned down, for a number of reasons. But according to Nicholas Pamperin, Acting Director of the Manila Regional Office for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the majority of denials were attributed to an inability to find the applicant’s name on the military roster.
“They are hopeless, depressed, lonely, frustrated,” said Jerry Clarito, Executive Director of the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment in Chicago, and a past organizer of Filipino veterans fighting for equity benefits. Clarito said many of these veterans need the money, but the lack of recognition is, in fact, a deeper issue. “They know they served, they were in the battle, and now they find that there’s no help. That they’re being ignored.”
The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders assembled a working group to look into the issue, but it recently reaffirmed the existing process for claims. Bartolome’s final hope is a hearing before the Veterans Board of Appeals this month.