By CHRIS FUCHS - NBC News
WASHINGTON — It started with a search three years ago. Michael-Vincent Nario Malanyaon learned from American archives that his great uncle in the Philippines served in World War II.
Alfonzo B. Velasco was a Philippine Scout, fighting for the U.S. He died in combat May 5, 1942, according to Malanyaon. His age was unknown.
“I frankly don’t even know where he was buried,” Malanyaon, 43, told NBCNews.
A Congressional Gold Medal presented Wednesday during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol honors the contributions of a quarter million Filipinos and Filipino Americans like Velasco who fought in World War II, some paying the ultimate sacrifice.
It’s a recognition that comes seven decades after these very same vets were denied benefits promised for their service.
“For me to accept the award as next of kin for my great uncle is very humbling,” said Malanyaon, who received a bronze replica of the medal at a separate event later in the day.
Filipino vets, many in their 80s and 90s, along with family members of surviving and deceased veterans were among the hundreds who attended the late morning ceremony, held in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), as well as other elected officials, also took part.
“They battled not only the enemy, but they battled starvation and malnutrition,” Ryan said. “But they never lost sight of the cause, and they never accepted defeat.”
The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, an all-volunteer initiative begun in 2014, had lobbied Congress to award this highest civilian honor. It memorializes the service and sacrifice of the more than 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers during World War II.
A bill to grant the Gold Medal, introduced by Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), both in attendance, passed the Senate and House last year. Former President Barack Obama signed it into law in December.
“Many have passed away waiting for 75 years for this time to come,” said Celestino Almeda, a 100-year-old Filipino veteran who received a standing ovation from the audience.
Advocates say it’s a long overdue moment for Filipinos who fought for the U.S. between 1941 and 1946.
“We’ve always said that this is an issue that has a high sympathy quotient, because you can’t hear these stories and not be moved, but a very low visibility quotient,” Ben de Guzman, director of communications and outreach for the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, told NBC News.
It’s a story that traces back to the turn of the century, when Spain ceded sovereignty over the Philippines to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Between 1934 and 1946, the year the Philippines gained independence, the U.S. maintained the right to summon Filipinos to serve under the U.S. Armed Forces.
On July 26, 1941, less than five months before Japan attacked the Philippines and also Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called into service all “organized military forces” of the former U.S. colony.
Among them were the Philippine Commonwealth Army; the Philippine Scouts, established in 1901 during the early days of American occupation; and recognized Guerrilla units, which helped provide intelligence to Allied forces to repel the Japanese.
But despite their service, these veterans, who were U.S nationals, were disqualified from receiving the same rights, benefits, and privileges as others who served under the U.S. Armed Forces, the result of the Rescissions Act of 1946.
“This is a story that needs to be told again and again so that our country does not forget,” Hirono, the senator, said.
In recent years, Filipino World War II veterans have made headway in gaining recognition for their service.
Obama signed a law in 2009 creating a fund granting $15,000 to Filipino vets who are U.S. citizens and $9,000 to those who are not. Both are one-time payments.
Almeda had long battled with the Department of Veterans Affairs to collect his money, Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin told the audience Wednesday.
Shulkin, after learning of Almeda’s struggles earlier this week, said he directed his staff to review his records and decided to award him the $15,000.
“Mr. Almeda, 70 years was long enough for you to have to wait,” Shulkin said.
Just last June, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also took steps toward easing an immigration backlog from the Philippines.
The agency began allowing certain Filipino World War II vets and their spouses, who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, to apply for relatives to come to the U.S. to reunite before their immigrant visas are available.
An estimated 16,000 to 17,000 Filipino World War II veterans are still alive today, according to de Guzman.
Though reliable data isn’t available, he said he believes most are living in the Philippines. Many came to the U.S. in 1990 after receiving citizenship for their service, de Guzman said. Some stayed, while others returned to or never left the Philippines, he said.
More than $70,000 has already been raised to pay for bronze replicas of the single Congressional Gold Medal, according to de Guzman. They will be given to veterans and family members who are part of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project’s registry, he said.
The original will go to the Smithsonian, according to de Guzman.
“This is 75 years in the making,” retired Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba, chairman of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, told NBC News. “It's a glorious day in October of 2017 that the veterans finally got the recognition with the Congressional Gold Medal.”
Other combat outfits have also been awarded the highest civilian honor for their service.
Among them are the Japanese-American Nisei soldiers of World War II; the Montford Point Marines, who were the first African-American U.S. Marines since colonial times; and the 65th Infantry Regiment Borinqueneers of Puerto Rico, which fought in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
At Wednesday’s ceremony, Emancipation Hall fell silent as Almeda prepared to speak. Rising from his wheelchair, he made his way to the stage, resting his cane against a table next to the podium. He reached into his breast coat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper with his remarks.
Toward the end, he quoted from the U.S. Army Soldier’s Creed, which is taught at basic training and recited at ceremonies.
“I am an American soldier,” he said. “I am a warrior and a member of a team. I believe I served the people of the United States.”
He also thanked his fellow soldiers, including those who could not be there, “for sharing this glorious day.”
“As the saying goes, old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” he said to applause. “Thank you all — and God bless America.”
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