Actor Phillips testifies for Filipino vets

June 13, 2002 at 2:44 AM
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WASHINGTON,, D.C., June 13 (UPI) -- Hollywood will lobby Washington again Thursday when actor Lou Diamond Phillips ("Courage Under Fire," "La Bamba") testifies at the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on behalf of a bill to extend health benefits to surviving Filipino soldiers who fought under the U.S. flag in World War II.

The "Health Care for Filipino World War II Veterans Act" is sponsored by Rep. Bob Filner, D.-Calif. He said the measure is intended to redress an injustice perpetrated by the U.S. government on Filipino soldiers who were recruited to slow the advance of Japan in the Pacific.

"Filipino soldiers were drafted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, they served this country, and then they were discarded by the U.S. government after the war," said Filner.

The Rescissions Act of 1946 stripped them of their benefits.

"Finally, more than 50 years later," said Filner, "we have a real chance to give them the benefits and the official 'U.S. Veteran' status that they deserve."

The San Diego-area congressman said he has been trying to get the benefits restored for nearly 10 years. He said that after Rep. Bob Stump, R.-Ariz., took over as chairman of the Veterans Affairs committee in 1995, the bill never had a chance of getting out of committee.

Filner said Filipino veterans fought at such battles as Bataan and Corregidor, but that Stump never regarded them as "real soldiers." He said the current chairman of Veterans Affairs, Rep. Christopher Smith (R.-N.J.), is sympathetic to the bill but has not formally endorsed it.

However, the bill has gained bipartisan support, with backers including Sen. Daniel Inouye, D.-Hawaii; Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R.-N.Y.; Rep. Randy Cunningham, R.-Calif.; said Filner. He said the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Albert del Rosario, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi would also testify in favor of the bill Thursday.

A driving force behind the campaign to restore benefits for Filipino veterans of World War II is Fritz Friedman, the Manila-born Senior V.P. of Marketing for Columbia Tri-Star Films in Hollywood. After learning about the issue about five years ago, Friedman said, he put his expertise to work getting celebrities to spread the message.

"There is no logical reason fro this promise not to be kept," said Friedman.

He founded and still serves as executive director of The Assembly for Justice, and is also president of the board of directors of the Filipino American Heritage Institute in Los Angeles. Besides Phillips, Friedman has called on such Hollywood figures as Tia Carrere ("Wayne's World," "Rising Sun") and Dean Devlin (producer, "The Patriot," "Independence Day") to use their celebrity to draw attention to the issue.

Friedman is scheduled to testify at on Capitol Hill Thursday, along with Phillips -- who is half Filipino and was born in Subic Bay Naval Station, the Philippines.

Phillips told United Press International he considers it his duty to speak up for the Filipino veterans.

"The clock is running out for these men," he said. "We're in the final minutes of the game and they're not going to live to see their due respect."

It is estimated that between 16,000 and 17,000 Filipino veterans of World War II are still alive.

Although Filner has been trying to restore full benefits, not just the health benefits provided in his bill, but pensions as well, he said that realistically, he's willing to settle for health care -- for now.

"It's an important first step because it enshrines into law the fact that these are indeed veterans," said Filner. "This would allow us to build toward pensions in the future."

Filner conceded that there is a political risk attached to support for restoring benefits to Filipino veterans.

"If you're not giving the U.S veterans they're due -- which we're not -- and you give some money to foreigners, there is a political risk," he said.

Phillips -- who won an Independent Spirit Award and was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actor for "Stand and Deliver" in 1987 -- is aware that not everyone is convinced of the value of celebrity testimony on Capitol Hill.

"Most celebrities are given more credence than they should be," he said. "They are very rarely experts on the subjects they're called on to speak about. However, the people listen to them."

He said a Native American friend of his calls celebrities "thunder voices," because their voices carry a long way and people tend to pay attention when they speak.

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