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Artemio Caleda, 91, a proud World War II veteran, says he won’t let a little bureaucracy spoil his Veterans Day.
Nearly 75 years after he signed up to fight under the U.S. flag, Caleda says the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to deny recognition of his military service.
In Caleda’s case, the dispute hinges on his military alias as an intelligence officer being on the Army’s official list, and not his real name. Despite Caleda’s verifiable documents recognizing his service from the Philippines that contain both names, the VA has not made Caleda eligible for the symbolic victory Filipino veterans have long fought for: restoration of pay and benefits that were first taken away in 1946.
Caleda is just one of more than 4,000 veterans of World War II, estimated by the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans, who are still looking to be part of what was supposed to be the solution. The Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Act of 2009, signed into law by President Obama, was supposed to give Filipino-American veterans who fought in the Philippines a one-time lump sum payment — $15,000 if they lived in the U.S.; $9,000 if they still lived in the Philippines.
But proving eligibility has become a bureaucratic snafu for many like Caleda, who has remained steadfast in his claim.
“I am not a beggar,” Caleda told NBC News. “I have done my service, I am a veteran…and I believe in the spirit of justice.”
'They Are Cheaters'
Caleda said he can still remember his first taste of war.
On Dec. 8, 1941, Caleda was 17, and the Philippines was a commonwealth of the U.S.
“I am not a beggar. I have done my service, I am a veteran…and I believe in the spirit of justice.”
Just out of high school, he patrolled the hillsides of the Philippines, near his home in Cagayan, wearing a helmet made from woven strips of a local squash known as upo. Caleda’s job was to warn the villagers that the Japanese were coming.
“We had bolo knives and spears, but when we are hiding, we had the sling-shot,” Caleda recalled. “Yes, the Japanese had guns, but we are also smart. Some of us were shot. But we took the risk. We were called the Bolo Men.”
The Bolo Men were guerrilla fighters, members of the Philippine resistance who were needed to fight off the brutal aggression of Japan. Caleda was part of the more than 250,000 Filipinos who answered the call of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 to serve in the U.S. Army.
In return came the promise of U.S. citizenship, full pay, and benefits.
The importance of the Filipino effort was apparent a year later when the Japanese occupation troops forced General Douglas McArthur to flee to Australia. Filipinos battling-side-by-side with the remaining U.S. soldiers kept up the fight in the Philippines.
But even then, Caleda said it was not exactly side-by-side, and not quite equal.
“It would be good if we were second class citizens,” Caleda said. “[Filipinos] were put in the forefront.”
The treatment they received on the frontlines foretold how the Filipino fighters would end up after the war was won in the in the Pacific.
In 1946, President Harry Truman signed a law known as the Rescission Act. The law reversed all promises made to the Filipino soldiers by the U.S. government.
“They are cheaters,” Caleda said. “They promised something and they didn’t comply with their promises. The order of President Roosevelt is very clear: when we were drafted into the U.S. Army, we would be compensated just like American soldiers.”
But the order by Truman was also clear in his reversal. As the war ended, a new political front was opened that Caleda and others have faced for nearly 70 years.
Thousands Left Empty-Handed With Little Answers
Due to their efforts and the community’s rallying, some of what was taken away has been restored: citizenship was granted in the 1990s; some VA medical benefits followed for Filipino vets who lived in the U.S in 2003; and, in 2009, some semblance of equity arrived when Obama signed a stimulus bill that included the provision to grant the one-time equity payments to the vets.
But of the more than 250,000 Filipinos who served, only 18,000 have been officially recognized and deemed eligible for the lump sum payments.
“They promised something and they didn’t comply with their promises. The order of President Roosevelt is very clear: when we were drafted into the U.S. Army, we would be compensated just like American soldiers.”
Left empty-handed still are Caleda and thousands of others who continue the paperwork battle for the pay and benefits stripped of them in 1946.
This year in August, Caleda began another appeal, this time directly to Secretary Robert A. McDonald, head of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Caleda’s documents show he was part of the Philippine Army, under the authority of the United States Army Forces in the Philippines (USAFIP). But his war status has been continually denied because it cannot be verified through the available records at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
In Caleda’s case, there’s another twist: according to Eric Lachica, head of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, the NPRC recognizes him not as Artemio Caleda, but by his military alias, Monitor Tambong.
“His alias was listed in the official 1948 recognized Guerrilla roster of the U.S. Army, but not under his true civilian name,” Lachica told NBC News. “But the 1945 documents of the U.S. Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) show both names on his.”
Even though Caleda has produced affidavits and other documents that attest that Artemio Aquino Caleda and Monitor Tambong are the same person, only the Philippines has honored his supporting materials. The U.S. has not.
“I submitted the same documents and they’re denying it,” said Caleda, who was able to receive U.S. citizenship and some VA health benefits, despite being denied the lump sum equity payment.
Lachica estimates that there is about $50 million left of an original fund worth more than $260 million to be paid. He believes Caleda’s best chance may come from an appeals case decision last year that could pave the way for VA Secretary McDonald to use “discretion” in determining whether evidence provided is sufficient without the NPRC’s verification.
The VA told NBC News it had no comment on that or on Caleda's case at this time.
The lump sum payment is just one of the things Caleda would like to see as he fights off another concern: time. Caleda is healthy, but the attrition rate among the veterans is the primary reason the vast majority have seen little or no benefits. The politics has simply outlived most of them before their cases could be resolved.
New Developments Signal Hope
Caleda has been one of the veterans meeting with officials in Washington, but every year takes a natural toll. This year, the leader of the coalition of Filipino veterans is Celestino Almeda, now 98. Like Caleda, Almeda, a Maryland resident, was recognized enough to be granted citizenship and VA medical benefits, but not the lump sum benefit.
Almeda told NBC News last November he will continue to fight “until I get what I deserve.”
The Filipino veterans are also watching two other recent developments. The first is the plan to allow the Filipino children of veterans a way to shorten the wait in the immigration line to be reunited with them in the U.S. The second is a plan led by retired U.S. Army Major General Antonio Taguba to award the veterans with a Congressional Medal of Honor.
In the meantime, though he has yet to be recognized fully, Caleda still feels fortunate on this Veterans Day.
He knows that for many of his Filipino veteran comrades, living or deceased, along with their spouses and widows, the lump sum money would be a help to them. But Caleda insists that for himself, the $15,000 is more symbolic than anything, and not as important as his sense of military honor, justice, and pride.
“I am a soldier who fought for freedom and democracy,” Caleda said. “I stand before the American flag, the Filipino flag flying high, proud to say I served for my country.”