Filipino WWII Vets, in S.F., File Suit Seeking Recognition, Compensation

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Taylor Friedman
Romeo de Fernandez, 91, survived the Bataan death march. But now, he says, his own government is shortchanging him.
Philippines-born Romeo R. de Fernandez, 91, served in the United States military and defended Manila during World War II. In 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army took him as a prisoner of war. After surviving the Bataan Death March, he was honorably discharged in 1945. The next day he reenlisted to fight in Luzon.

But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has no record of this. His presence on the Missouri List -- the government's official database of personnel who served during the 20th century -- was most likely destroyed when a fire in 1973 damaged 80 percent of the records dating from 1912 to 1960. 

Former area Congressman Pete McCloskey hosted a press conference in front of the San Francisco Federal Building at 11:30 a.m. with three veterans, including de Fernandez, by his side. McCloskey, along with the San Francisco Veterans Equity Center and the veterans, today filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of Filipino World War II vets that claims the standards for receiving compensation -- utilizing the admittedly incomplete Missouri List -- are a violation of due process.

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Former Rep. Pete McCloskey, right, is filing a suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of de Fernandez and other Filipino vets
As though they were trying to prove their credibility, the veterans slowly ambled -- or wheeled -- up to the mic and defensively rattled off every unit in which they had served with and every award they had earned.

McCloskey, who fought in the Korean War, said he would have trouble proving he served.

Because the wheelchair-bound de Fernandez is not on the Missouri List, he was denied the $15,000 that each Filipino veteran was supposed to receive this year. In 2009, Congress set aside $198 million, expecting to compensate 18,000 veterans under the 2009 Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation law. Attorney Stuart Gross said Congress underestimated the number of applicants. By Feb. 1 of this year, 35,700 former soldiers filed. Of those, 12,500 received lump sum payments and the remaining applications have either been rejected or are still pending.
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Filipino veterans must accept these lump sums because they are not entitled to pensions. A 1946 bill signed by President Harry Truman appropriated $200 million to the Commonwealth Army of the Philippines with the condition that service in the Commonwealth Army no longer equated to service in the U.S.

"I should receive this because I am an American citizen," de Fernandez said.

Added Lourdes Tancinco, another attorney for the plaintiffs, "It's not the money that's important to him. It's his dignity."

De Fernandez was rejected because of his missing record. But another veteran at the press conference, 88-year old Valeriano Marcelino, was rejected even though his name is on file. He was told by Veterans Affairs that his loyalty is suspect; the sticking point is a check allegedly signed by Marcelino from the Japanese Imperial Army. Marcelino said he had never seen the check until then.

In order to prove their allegiance, Gross claims, the veterans are asked to provide two disinterested parties who can vouch for their actions during WWII.

Finding two people who are neither friends nor family and who can also attest to the soldiers' motives and day-to-day actions 60 years ago and across the globe is a "burden of proof they can't overcome," Gross said. "It's not only arbitrary. It's incredibly offensive."

McCloskey said Veterans Affairs head Eric Shinseki is a "pretty good guy" and blames the ordeal on bureaucracy holdups. He hopes a court order will knock a sense of urgency into the department. 

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