Filipino WWII veterans awarded Congressional Gold Medal

Celestino Almeda joined the Philippine Commonwealth Army in 1941, fought alongside U.S. soldiers during World War II and for nearly a decade has been seeking money the federal government had promised.

On Wednesday, the 100-year-old veteran got his recognition and finally his money, too.

Almeda received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin also announced at a Capitol ceremony that Almeda was getting a check, 72 years after the war ended.

Shulkin’s announcement drew gasps from some of the hundreds in attendance at the Gold Medal ceremony, which House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., acknowledged was “long, long overdue.”

Almeda, dressed in his military cap, told the crowd he was glad to be able to accept the medal, noting that “many have passed away waiting for 75 years for this time to come.”

Almeda said he and other Filipino veterans have long “felt unrecognized for fighting for our country,” adding, “I wondered why” since he and his fellow soldiers had brought “victory during a long war in the Philippines.”

The gold medal signified that his service — and that of thousands of other Filipino veterans — is recognized, Almeda said, calling himself a warrior who “will never quit.”

Almeda was a 24-year-old teacher when he joined the Philippine Commonwealth Army in 1941. After the war, he resumed his career as a teacher and was granted U.S. citizenship in the 1990s. In 2003, he began receiving medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs under a law aimed at Filipino veterans.

But Almeda, now 100 and living outside Washington, has been fighting for nearly a decade to receive a $15,000 lump-sum payment promised to Filipino veterans under the 2009 economic stimulus law.

Almeda was among more than 260,000 Filipino soldiers who served alongside U.S. soldiers in World War II, including more than 57,000 who died. After the war ended, President Harry S. Truman signed laws that stripped away promises of benefits and citizenship for Filipino veterans.

Only recently have the veterans won back some concessions and acknowledgment, including the gold medal.

“This is not simply a feel-good story of delayed recognition,” Ryan said in a speech. “We are here to immortalize the legacy of these great liberators who have paved the way for generations to follow. Let this ceremony serve to ensure that those who fought for freedom are never forgotten and are always remembered.”

Hawaii’s U.S. Sen. Mazie K. Hirono and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard were among leaders who presented the Congressional Gold Medal to Filipino World War II veterans in a Capitol ceremony Wednesday morning.

The presentation was the culmination of their years-long effort to recognize Filipino World War II veterans with Congress’s highest civilian honor. Among those in attendance were 20 Hawaii veterans and their family members.

Hirono and Gabbard were also joined by Shulkin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in presenting the medal.

“Presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to our Filipino World War II veterans is a long overdue honor for hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families,” Hirono said in a news release.

She recalled that last Veterans Day, Filipino World War II veteran Domingo Los Banos urged her during a speech on the deck of the USS Missouri to make sure the Congressional Gold Medal bill was passed. Los Banos was not able to make the trip from Honolulu to attend the ceremony.

“I hope that today’s ceremony conveyed to Domingo and every other veteran our gratitude for their service during the war and recognition of the hardship they face in receiving the benefits they earned,” she said. Hirono noted that only about 18,000 of the Filipino World War II veterans are alive, and many are in their 80s and 90s.

Gabbard added: “These loyal and courageous soldiers suffered hardships, fought bravely and sacrificed greatly, with many giving up their lives alongside their American counterparts throughout the war, yet their service was left unrecognized in the United States for decades. Today, these brave soldiers are finally receiving the recognition they earned and deserve, and join the ranks of heroic units like the Tuskegee Airmen and Hawaii’s own 442nd/100th Infantry Battalion as we honor them with the Congressional Gold Medal — our nation’s highest civilian honor.”

The Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act (Public Law 114-265) was signed into law by President Barack Obama, which awarded the medal collectively to the more than 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers who responded to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call to duty and fought under the American flag during World War II.

The ceremony was livestreamed on Hirono’s Facebook page and is still available for viewing.