Recent years have seen an emergence of using a particular month to raise awareness about a given issue, community, or institution. I've observed elsewhere that there are at least 50 instances where a Presidential Proclamation has recognized a month in this way. May recognizes (at least!) two communities through celebrating both Asian American/ Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Older Americans Month. In Washington, DC, these monthly celebrations are often used as opportunities to launch policy initiatives or mark important legislation. While it was passed officially in April, the newly reauthorized Older Americans Act has been a lynchpin around which Older Americans Month celebrations have been built this month. President Obama's United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency used the increased attention for AAPI Heritage Month to announce its new policy for a parole process to allow Filipino World War II veterans to reunite with their children. As both Older Americans and Asian Americans, these veterans sit at the intersection of Older Americans Month and Asian American/ Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
As we wrap up the month with Memorial Day, it becomes even more important to lift up these veterans and celebrate their legacy. The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project salutes all our veterans who, in the words of President Lincoln, "gave the full measure of devotion." Our campaign to provide a Congressional Gold Medal to the surviving Filipino soldiers who fought in World War II reminds us that out of the more than 200,000 originally called into service by President Roosevelt to the United States Armed Forces of the Far East, less than 16,000 remain with us today. We remember not only those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during the war, but those we have lost in the years since, after the U.S. government unceremoniously stripped them of their official status as U.S. veterans. While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs still does not recognize their service as fully equal to that of the American soldiers with whom they stood shoulder to shoulder, we remember. We remember them and the sacrifices they made on the field of battle and since. You can add your voice to the rising chorus calling for recognition of their selfless service on our online petition here: bit.ly/215fSzT
Many people complain that the original intent of Memorial Day to honor our veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice has been lost and replaced by poolside barbecues and sales at the mall. I choose instead to remember two men who not only served us on the battlefield, but continued to lead our struggle to give them the recognition they deserve:
- Faustino "Mang Peping" Baclig survived the Bataan Death March and was one of the leading advocates for Filipino WWII veterans in Southern California until his death in 2011. While we were able to win some victories for Mang Peping and his comrades such as burial benefits, he once quipped, "They'll pay for us to die, but they won't pay for us to live." His words continue to weigh heavy in my heart and inspire me to fight for his memory.
- Mr. Jesse Baltazar, one of the few remaining Filipino WWII veterans in the DC area, unfortunately passed away this past April. He was on hand when Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) introduced the 2015 Filipino Veterans of WWII Congressional Gold Medal Act (HR 2737 and S 1555). Although he finally received his Purple Heart January last year after 70 years of waiting because of lost military records, he died before being able to receive the honor this legislation seeks to bestow on him and the soldiers with whom he served.
It is these men, the legacy they built for us as a Filipino American community, and the democracy we all get to live in now as Americans because of their service, that I choose to remember today. It is for them that I continue to fight and I humbly ask for you to join me this Memorial Day.
Ben de Guzman is on the Executive Committee of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. For more information, find FilVetREP on Facebook or Twitter. To join FilVetREP's online petition calling for a Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino WWII veterans, click here: bit.ly/215fSzT