Local Filipino veterans fought for America but didn’t get recognition or benefits
Captured and tortured at the Battle of Bataan, 20-year-old Raymond Seva was forced to march six days to a hellish place known as Camp O’Donnell. Deeply famished and sleep deprived, he managed to survive six months of manual labor, starvation, ravaging disease and lice-infested living conditions at what has come to be known as one of World War II’s most infamous “death factories.”
Sixty-six years later, at the age of 86, the Sacramento veteran walks with a stroller and appears old and frail. Wrinkles near the dark circles under his eyes appear as he smiles. Gray haired and tired, he sits in the bare lobby of a local senior-citizen complex where he shares an apartment with his wife, Fe Seva.
Seva suffers from many health problems, including congested heart and arthritis, peripheral-artery disease and poor circulation. He doesn’t go out much and describes his boredom with a sad facial expression. His daily routine consists of eating, sleeping and watching television. Sometimes he walks around the neighborhood, but he doesn’t go shopping much because he cannot afford to spend more than their daily essentials of food and clothing.
Seva is one of many Filipino World War II soldiers who took the Pledge of Allegiance and fought under the American flag to defend the Constitution of the United States. But he is not recognized as a U.S. veteran. For the rendering of services, soldiers like Seva received nothing.
It was 1941 when President Roosevelt issued an executive order calling all Filipino military units to serve under the U.S. armed forces. The Philippines was a territory of the United States, and under the War Powers Act that military order acted as a federal law. On February 18, 1946, Congress enacted the Rescission Act, which denied all WWII Filipino veterans their status as U.S. veterans, depriving them of both recognition and benefits.
After the 1990 Naturalization Act was passed, many Filipino veterans like Seva came to America believing they would be recognized as U.S. veterans because the Act included a clause that specifically granted naturalization to Filipino WWII veterans. Though many in their old age left their wives and children in the Philippines, upon arriving in America they discovered that they weren’t considered U.S. war veterans and were to face a life of struggle.
Today, in Sacramento and across the country, scores of elderly Filipino veterans like Seva live separated from their families and in substandard housing, sometimes with four or five other veterans cramped in the same room or apartment. Despite this, many haven’t gone back to the Philippines because they’ve come to depend on the Medicare and Supplemental Security Income checks. Also, life in the Philippines is hard and many veterans send a large amount of their SSI to their families there who depend on it to survive.
Many Filipino veterans still believe they will one day receive their promised benefits.
Indeed, they pin their hopes on Representative Bob Filner, D-Calif., and Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who this year introduced two bills in Congress, HR 760 and S 57, which would amend Title 38 of the 1946 Rescission Act and give such veterans full equity and benefits. This isn’t the first time such bills have been introduced and earlier attempts have failed. But in 1998, a similar bill came within nine votes of passing, so the Filipino veterans’ cause is not without hope.
Bert Arcaya entered the war when he was 18 years old and served under the 81st Infantry division of the Philippine army under the U.S. Armed Forces in the Far East. Like many of his fellow Filipino soldiers, he was captured and survived life as a prisoner of war for 10 months.
Today Arcaya, 84, lives with his wife, Luz, in a small two-bedroom apartment in Sacramento. The walls of his petite living room are lined with prestigious military medals, awards, veteran hats and photographs. Piles of photo albums and papers stack the coffee-room table. Both Arcaya and Luz have gray hair and hold humble smiles. They’re both healthy and take multivitamins and fish oils daily for their hearts. They appear happy, but are saddened by the separation from their family in the Philippines.
Arcaya came to America in 1991 and his wife followed a few years later. Arcaya was unable, however, to bring his children because their children weren’t over 21-years-old and therefore not allowed to enter the country. His petition to have his family join them will have to wait fourteen more years, he says, until his grandchildren are eligible under existing law. “I miss playing with my grandchildren,” Arcaya sighs.
“The government is ungrateful. We were fighting for America. When we were inducted into the military, we had to take the Pledge of Allegiance to America and to defend the U.S. Constitution. You see the irony in that. And they say we’re not U.S. veterans,” he said.
Arcaya is the president of the U.S. Filipino War Veterans’ legion, a group that holds meetings to discuss recognition status and the attempt to pass another bill in Congress that would allow family reunification for WWII Filipino veterans. He’s also trying to improve the horrible living conditions of fellow countryman who came to America with the same hope that he did.
Arcaya and his wife would like to return to the Philippines to reunite with their family, but it’s become difficult to imagine life without Medicare. Like Arcaya, Seva is grateful for Medicare and admits if he were to return to the Philippines, he would have trouble taking care of his health problems. “America’s the land of milk and honey, but unfortunately we’re being discriminated against,” he says.
Seva believes that the benefits of Medicare and SSI may be enough to waive the faults of America, but the feelings of betrayal remain. Pointing to his heart he states, “This scar is still there. … We were wounded by discrimination. The U.S. Congress should give us what we deserve. If they’re ever going to give it to us, they better give it now before all of us die, or else forget it.”
For Arcaya, the money doesn’t matter anymore. But he and other Filipino veterans across the country are watching the two equity bills in Congress, hoping they get out of committee. “We fought for America so we should be recognized,” he said. “It’s just a matter of honor and integrity.”