Filipino vets await promised benefits
By AUDREY McAVOY
WAIPAHU — Gaudencio Sotio injured his left leg fighting to expel the Japanese military from the Philippines during World War II. Though Filipino, he was fighting under the command of the United States, which had colonized his homeland in the late 1800s.
Last February, the U.S. said it would pay a lump sum — $9,000 or $15,000 — to veterans such as Sotio in lieu of pensions it had promised Filipino soldiers during the war but reneged on paying.
Since then, more than 11,000 surviving veterans now in their 80s and 90s received this payment for their service and sacrifice. But thousands of others are still waiting to receive their money as the federal government wades through a backlog of applications.
The bureaucracy moved too slowly for Sotio, who died Jan. 10. The 84-year-old applied for his benefit on Feb. 20 — almost 11 months ago — just days after the law authorizing the funds went into effect. His death came before the Department of Veterans Affairs was able to rule on his claim.
"My husband said: 'If the others are receiving, maybe I'm going to receive too,"' said Norma Sotio, his widow, as tears welled in her eyes. "It's one year already. If my husband received that money maybe he enjoy."
Part of the problem is that 40,000 people applied for the benefit when the VA had been expecting only half that number. To cope, the VA added seven additional claims processors to its Manila field office.
The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which has more than 100 years of documents for military servicemen and women, has also increased its staff to deal with the claims, and is now handling 800 lump sum payment queries a week, or twice as many as when the program started.
The VA expects these changes will allow it to plow through the existing application pile in about 10 weeks.
"We are committed to delivering these benefits in a compassionate and timely manner," said Willie Clark, the Western area director for the field operations office.
The department has so far had to deny nearly 8,000 claims, mostly from people who hadn't served. Some were from widows of veterans, or children and other next of kin who aren't eligible. Some people filed more than one application.
About 16,000 claims are still being reviewed.
The waiting has frustrated veterans who have already spent most of their lives pushing the government to fulfill its promises.
"The long delay is justice denied. That's the saying. It's really true — it's an injustice somehow," said Art Caleda, president of the Hawai'i chapter of World War II Filipino-American Veterans.
About 400 applicants are in Hawai'i. Most — 65 percent — have been paid, while 15 percent were denied.
About 20 percent of the Hawai'i claims are still pending, like Sotio's.
"There are veterans who were able to file their application claims but then they died. What is the use of that?" said Caleda.
More than 250,000 Filipinos served alongside U.S. soldiers to defend the Philippines from the 1941 Japanese invasion.
They formed the resistance during the subsequent Japanese occupation.
Because her husband applied before he died, Norma Sotio would receive his benefit if the VA determines he had a valid claim.
She said she'd share any money she receives with his children.