White House throws weight behind Filipino WWII vets

The Obama administration has created a new Interagency Working Group to help facilitate federal payments from the Veterans Administration to Filipino veterans who served alongside U.S. forces in the Pacific.  

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The White House group will focus on securing payments for Philippine nationals who served with indigenous units such as the Philippine Scouts or in paramilitary or guerrilla forces "recognized by the United States Army, while such forces were in the service of the Armed Forces of the United States," according to the VA. 

Filipino-Americans who enlisted in the military and served in Europe and the Pacific during WWII have historically had no problem securing benefits from the U.S. government. But when members of units like the Philippine Scouts or the guerrilla forces immigrated from the Philippines to the United States after the war, they were denied any federal benefits for their service. 

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in 2009 created the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund, which allowed a one-time payment of $15,000 to Filipino veterans who are now U.S. citizens. 

Non-citizens who still reside in the Philippines are also eligible for a $9,000 lump sum payment under the act. 

But since Obama signed the bill into law three years ago, only 18,000 citizen and non-citizen Filipino veterans have been approved by the VA to receive payments from the fund. 

"However, we ... have heard from many Filipino veterans who have been impeded from filing claims or believe their claims were improperly denied," Chris Lu, co-chairman of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, said in a statement issued Thursday.  

Administration officials, along with representatives from the Pentagon and the VA in the working group, will "ensure that all [benefits] applications receive thorough and fair review," according to Lu. 

The shrewd political timing of the White House's announcement comes at a particularly critical juncture for the administration both at home and abroad. 

With recent polls showing Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in a virtual dead heat, Thursday's move could help the Obama camp shore up much needed support among Asian-American voters. 

With Asian-Americans taking over Hispanics as the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, securing that vital demographic for Democrats could make the difference between a second term for Obama or a Romney White House. 

A recent Lake Research Partners study found that while 53 percent of Asian-Americans identify as Democrats and 16 percent as Republicans, 31 percent consider themselves independents.

That large independent gap could prove to be "a large swing bloc, potentially, especially in states like Virginia and Nevada,”  Gloria Chan, president and CEO of the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, told The Hill in June. 

Internationally, renewing support for Filipino veterans could help pave the way for an increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines. 

The Pentagon is looking to increase the U.S. military footprint in the Asian nation as part of the department's overarching strategic shift from the wars in the Mideast to the Pacific. 

American intelligence and special operations forces have been conducting counterterrorism support operations from their base in the southern Philippines since 2001. 

Hundreds of Marines are expected to flood into the Philippines as part of the service’s growing focus on the region, Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said in March. 

In May, the Obama administration pledged $30 million in foreign military funding to the Philippines for fiscal 2012 — nearly three times the $11.9 million in military funds Washington pledged to the Philippines in 2011. 

The Pentagon had initially set aside $15 million in fiscal 2012 to help finance ongoing counterterrorism efforts by the Philippine military against radical Muslim groups in the southern part of the country. 

A month later, Manila agreed to allow the first American military deployments to Clark Air Force Base and the naval base in Subic Bay since DOD officially shuttered the Philippine-based facilities in 1991 and 1992, respectively. 

But public opinion in the Philippines has begun to turn against the American military presence there, which could make expansion of those forces difficult. 

Local residents have pushed back against a proposed seaport being built by the Philippine government in the hotly contested Spratly Islands. 

Some in the country believe the seaport and adjoining runway will be used as a jumping-off point for U.S-led military operations against regional powers, such as China and North Korea. 

Filipino citizens demanded to break ties with the U.S. after a fatal accident in April involving American special forces and civilians in the area. 

A U.S. patrol boat piloted by members of special operations forces collided with a small fishing vessel in the waters around Mindanao after returning from a humanitarian mission in the town of Hadji Mutamad near Basilan. 

A Philippine fisherman was killed and his son injured as a result of the crash, sparking anti-American protests in the south.