- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The ties of a shared twentieth-century history mean close relations for the United States and the Philippines. This week, however, those ties resulted in a most unusual Senate debate. What, if anything, does the United States owe nationals of this ex-colony who were conscripted into the U.S. military during World War II? In a 56-41 vote this week, cast largely but not exclusively on party lines, the Senate contended that U.S. military benefits worth $300 a month are in order for this most unusual category of World War II veteran. The package is expected to cost about $250 million over 10 years. The matter now awaits action in the House. In the eyes of supporters, this is a story of military history and obligation. But it is also about domestic politics and the constituencies of U.S. lawmakers. For some, a vote at home means delivering what is desired abroad.

There survive today 13,000 Filipinos who served in the U.S. military in the fight against Japanese imperial aggression. Octogenarians all, they are not to be confused with the several thousand Filipino-Americans who became U.S. citizens after serving in the U.S. military during World War II. Today, those veterans reside in the United States and receive the much greater benefits of U.S. service personnel. But these 13,000 non-U.S. citizen veterans live in the Philippines, and, until now, they and their advocates in the United States have occupied what is at best a gray area in military benefits. The consensus has been that no entitlement exists.

Sen. Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who led the charge against the idea, argued that $250 million for Filipino veterans is $250 million in American tax dollars that cannot be spent on veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the U.S. citizen veterans of those wars. This argument, which points to sorely needed funds for veterans’ health care in the present wars, is in some respects a dodge. In an era when the total Veterans Affairs budget reaches about $70 billion, a principled lawmaker should be able to judge on the merits. Either there exists an obligation to Filipinos that the U.S. government should honor, or there does not.

Mr. Burr’s amendment failed by a 56-41 margin largely on party lines. Seven Republicans voted in favor of benefits, including veterans Sens. Richard Lugar, Ted Stevens, Chuck Hagel and John Warner. One Democrat, Sen. Evan Bayh, voted against. Mr. Stevens, one of the Senate’s five World War II veterans, made an impassioned plea in favor. (Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama did not vote. Sen. Hillary Clinton voted in favor of benefits.)

The overall veterans bill then passed by a 96-1 margin. Sen. Daniel Akaka, Hawaii Democrat and chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs’ Committee, is the key figure in the bill’s passage. Approximately 14 percent of Mr. Akaka’s home state of Hawaii claim Filipino heritage and many have family in the old country — a sure factor in this debate.


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