Ret. Major General Antonio Taguba, known for authoring a report on the abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, has now come to the defense of a Filipino World War II veteran who is still seeking recognition and equity pay for his service to the U.S. during the war.
Celestino Almeda, who will turn 99 years old this June, still fights with the spirit he had as a 1941 member of the Philippine Commonwealth Army under control of the U.S. Army. And while his service and documents have been enough to earn him U.S. citizenship and even VA health benefits, his paperwork still has not been sufficient enough for the $15,000 lump sum payment due to Filipino WWII veterans — compensation granted to Filipino veterans after President Barack Obama signed the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Act of 2009.
“Before I close my eyes forever, I want to know that I am recognized as a veteran of WWII in the Philippine theatre of war, which [VA Secretary Robert McDonald] denied,” Almeda told NBC News. “I have done what I had to do. I’ve tried to see him personally, wrote him emails, but he doesn’t respond.”
For the last two years, Almeda has been appealing for his equity pay at the congressional level. In May, he had a chance to bring his question to the nation's capitol.
During the Progress, Promise, and Challenges in U.S. Veterans' Health Policy hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., held on May 4, Almeda was given the microphone during a Q&A session with McDonald. (Almeda's exchange with McDonald can be watched at 49:32 in the YouTube video embedded below.)
"We have met with you and your staff several times," Almeda said to McDonald. "Do you remember me?"
McDonald responded, "Yes sir, I can't remember exactly when we exactly met."
“Your decision for my denial as a veteran of WWII was vacated by the decision of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, dated March 31, 2014," Almeda said. "We’re now 2016, and you have not rendered any decision on my appeal. What is your decision now?”
As Almeda continued, CSIS president and CEO John Hamre raised his hand to stop Almeda. “I'm going to interrupt you to say: this is a public event for policy purposes, not a private appeal," Hamre said. "The secretary has told you how you can reach him, please do it that way. Please take the microphone away from him, I can’t have you interrupt this meeting anymore."
McDonald did respond during the forum, saying, “There are people who served in the military, in the Philippine military during World War II. We rely on the Philippine government to certify that those people served in the Philippine military in conjunction with the United States.”
Following the event, a Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) spokesperson declined to comment on the situation due to privacy reasons.
“Due to privacy laws as they apply to any public discussion of any individual Veteran’s claim, we cannot address the specifics of Mr. Almeda’s case publicly,” a VA spokesperson told NBC News by email. “We evaluate each Veteran’s claim carefully and with the utmost respect for the Veteran.”
According to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs' website, the VA has processed more than 42,000 applications and granted nearly 19,000 claims in total. As of February, the VA's site lists more than 4,500 appeals received, and notes that the average pending period per appeal is 160 days.
In an email to McDonald following the forum, Taguba told NBC News he expressed his concern that the secretary failed to treat Almeda “with proper decorum to respect an elderly veteran who fought for our country some 75 years ago.”
“Having the microphone taken away from him was uncalled for,” Taguba wrote, noting that Almeda was living "on borrowed time, and waiting for a decision" as he neared the age of 99. “He has been discounted and embarrassed before, but he and fellow aging veterans don’t often get the opportunity to confront and question the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.”
In an email to NBC News, Hamre defended his actions at the forum. “It was not a meeting for private petitions by individuals,” Hamre wrote. “Mr. Almeda took the microphone to make a personal appeal, and that was inappropriate for the other 150 people who came for a policy discussion. I did ask that the microphone be taken so that we could return to the purpose of the meeting.”
Almeda, still lucid and focused, told NBC News he was still upset about not being able to converse with McDonald on the issue. “They denied me my freedom of speech, one of the basic foundations of democracy," he said. "I wasn’t allowed to continue my question."
Almeda added that he has shown the VA his original records of service, and the special orders assigning him from unit to unit. He said he would have asked McDonald some very simple questions.
“What else do you need to prove I am a veteran?” Almeda said. “Why don’t you believe my record?”
The story has been updated with comment from the Department of Veterans Affairs.