My Uncle Mel was a great American. As a barber, he cut my hair. As a soldier, he
was a corporal in the U.S. Army, a recipient of a Purple Heart. And now, a
Congressional Gold Medal winner.
I couldn’t make it to DC for the big Congressional Gold Medal event this week.
I’ll be in the area next week to do my one-man
show and just couldn’t
get there early.
So like many of you, I saw it on maybe the one good thing that House Speaker
Paul Ryan has ever done: provided a video
of the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for the Filipino Veterans of WW II.
Your tax dollars at work.
As expected, there was Celestino Almeda, speaking on behalf of all the veterans
and getting the biggest applause of the day as he thanked all the fallen
soldiers for “sharing this glorious day.”
As he ended, Almeda recited the saying, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade
But he practically sang the last two words with a kind of joyous glee. The crowd
responded with nearly 21 seconds of sheer love and adulation.
The other rich moment came with the initial recognition of Almeda, and the
realization that this 100-year-old vet had outlived it all: World War II; the
post-war politics of the Rescission Act of 1946 that took away promised benefits
to Filipino vets; and every last one of his Congressional detractors–and there
were many–who time and again denied Almeda and his fellow vets their just due.
A bit of contrition was in order. Sen. Charles Schumer summoned up what little
he could and extended it to the veterans.
“After far too long a delay, we honor them today,” Schumer said. “It’s a mark of
a confident and exceptional nation to look back on its history and say that we
made a grievous error, but we recognize it, and pledge to never let it happen
Oh yeah? Maybe Donald Trump should say that pledge.
It was painful to watch the ceremony, and not just because it was more than a
half-hour before any Filipino American spoke.
It was painful to see Congress honor the vets after making life hellish for them
for the better part of 70 years.
And then Almeda got up to speak.
I’ve talked to him now a number of times over the years and know he feels badly
that he never saw combat.
“I did not even pinch the ear of a Japanese solider,” he told me with a bit of
regret when I saw him in his home last summer and asked about what he did during
He told me he spent most of his time in the service unloading ships with food,
supplies, and tanks for the front lines.
But he saved his best fight for these golden years.
As other soldiers died on the battlefield or passed on, Almeda was one, who with
others led by Eric Lachica of the American Coalition of Filipino Veterans and
the son of a veteran, were on the front lines in the equity pay battle.
I remember the protests at the White House and Lafayette Park, and the headline
moments, like the chaining of veteran Guillermo Rumingan, who has since passed
In recent years, Almeda would doggedly hound
at every opportunity, going to public meetings attended by the Obama
administration’s VA Secretary Robert McDonald. At one session, the gatecrashing
Almeda’s mic was cut off and he was ushered off and silenced.
As I watched the video of Wednesday’s ceremony, I couldn’t help think of that
moment and all the moments of protest Almeda went through in just the last few
He never gave up the fight for all the vets.
The hounding of McDonald was important because the VA wasn’t aware of its own
rules that actually gave the secretary discretion as to what documents would
qualify a vet for equity compensation.
So when current VA Secretary David Shulkin took the mic to say that Almeda’s
appeal was resolved and he would get the $15,000 lump sum due him, if it was
intended to be the “feel good” capper of the day, it didn’t work.
It only highlighted the absurdity of it all.
On my Facebook page, Dr. Allan Bergano was disturbed. “After 75 years, that
comes to $200 a year…less than $1 a day,” he wrote.
Almeda told me it wasn’t about the money. He also got VA benefits years ago and
even became a U.S. citizen. But it’s just one of the things that makes his
rejection for equity pay
in 2009 all the more ridiculous.
Dawn Mabalon, who was at the ceremony, chimed in on my FB page, upset that it
was a token amount but appreciative too for the recognition. “As far as I’m
concerned, it’s not over until we get the history straight so that all Americans
understand who we are and what we have done in the making and shaping of today’s
America,” she wrote.
Mabalon, fittingly, is an American history professor at San Francisco State.
She’s also a friend. But I was closer to her father, Ernesto T. Mabalon, who
died in 2005 at age 80.
Ernie Mabalon was one of the unique warriors among Fil Vets of WWII. He was a
guerrilla fighter at age 18 who went underground for the United States Armed
Forces in the Far East when Gen. MacArthur retreated and uttered, “I shall
It was Mabalon and the guerrillas who kept the U.S. informed with intel during
the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. In part with that help, MacArthur
returned to Leyte, which led to victory in the Pacific.
But Mabalon wasn’t just a USAFFE member; he was also attached to the U.S Army’s
E Company, 2nd Battalion of the 66th Regimental Combat team.
He ended his career a sergeant with three ribbons, and a total of six Bronze
Make no mistake, the men and women honored Wednesday were no slouches.
But Dawn Mabalon knows her dad didn’t do any of it for a medal.
“He would have said this,” Dawn Mabalon wrote on my page. “”I wasn’t a
mercenary, a soldier for hire. I fought for my homeland. I deserve the benefits
afforded to all who sacrificed.‘”
Ernie was one tough guy. And once his fight was done, thank goodness, soldiers
like Almeda never gave up.
Filipinos who still aren’t sure if their family member qualifies for a replica
medal should go to www.filvetrep.org for more
The Filipino WWII vets now join a long list of fighters who faced discrimination
even in valor. The list includes the Tuskeegee Airmen, the 442nd of Nisei
veterans, the Navajo Code Talkers, and the all-Hispanic 65th Infantry Regiment
of the Korean War, all of which have been honored with the Congressional Gold
Medal. Only the Filipino vets had to fight to restore the legitimacy of their
But how’s this for irony of ironies. The Filipino vets got their medal and stand
among fellow honorees like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led most of the vets to
victory. And then there was awardee President Harry S. Truman, who signed the
Rescission Act of 1946 taking away benefits from the Filipino vets.
THE AFTER PARTY: FILVET PROM?
By all accounts, people continued the party at the Ritz Carlton in Virginia.
Dawn Mabalon was at the ceremony with unique qualifications. Her family
represents the closeness between the Filipinos and the military. Her father was
one of the 240,000 who answered President Franklin Roosevelt’s call to serve and
was a USAFFE member attached to the Army. Add to that her maternal grandfather,
Delfin, who also fought in WWII but was one of the 20,000 Filipino Americans in
the U.S. during the war who enlisted to prove loyalty to their new country.
For many Filipinos, that was the best route to the American middle class. The
path went from American colonial who couldn’t own property, to a spot in the
military, to GI Bill recipient. Service to America was the affirmative action
where you put your body on the line. And it was the difference for many
So it was great to see friends and family post their pictures on the web to
capture the joy of their veteran getting the heralded Congressional Gold Medal.
My Uncle Mel was represented by his son-in-law, Lt. General Ed Soriano. It was a
great honor for my cousins and the entire Guillermo family.
But it’s just one night after 70 years.
Like old soldiers, the night’s memory will fade away.
It won’t take away the pain of denial and the scars of a bitter fight waged
against Congress, which was happy to play the attrition game–counting on
veterans dying–before being forced to take action.
Congress deserves no medal for that. Not even its own.
See Emil’s “Amok Monologues: All Pucked Up,” a one-man show on Filipino American
History, and more at Baltimore’s Charm City Festival.