MT. SAMAT, BATAAN?Filipino veterans of World War II will still be entitled to receive their pensions and benefits from the Philippine government even if the US Congress approves the proposed Filipino Veterans Equity Bill.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gave the assurance as she signed Republic Act No. 9499 or the ?Filipino World War II Veterans Pensions and Benefits Act of 2008? during ceremonies marking the 66th commemoration of Araw ng Kagitingan here Wednesday.
Ms Arroyo signed the law in the presence of some 2,000 war veterans and their relatives who gathered at the Dambana ng Kagitingan, a 40-year-old war memorial built on this mountain in Pilar town.
The law allows Filipino veterans to continue receiving their pensions and benefits from the Philippine government in addition to similar pensions and benefits to be provided by the US government.
Filipino veterans currently receive a monthly old age pension of P5,000 from the government.
?I am too happy,? said Lilia Narvaez, the widow of Dominador Narvaez who served in the medical corps of the US Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) during the war.
?P5,000 is not enough to buy medicines,? said Narvaez, an 83-year-old grandmother who came all the way from La Trinidad, Benguet.
?It is good news, a good birthday gift from the [President],? said Benedicto Ramirez, 88, of Bulacan. ?At least I would get to enjoy the fruit of long waiting.?
Veterans and their dependents have complained that their measly monthly pension was not enough to pay for their food, medicines and other basic needs, and has not been increased for several years now.
RA 9499 amended RA 6498 (An Act Standardizing and Upgrading the Benefits for Military Veterans and their Dependents) signed in April 1990, which prohibited veterans from receiving additional pension benefits from the United States.
But in her speech, Ms Arroyo did not cite any additional benefits under the new law.
US Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney confirmed President George W. Bush?s commitment to sign into law the equity bill if the US Congress passed the measure before his term ends this year.
But the US Senate and House of Representatives would still have to reconcile at least two bills, she said. American legislators differed on the amount of the monthly pensions, which ranged from $300 (P12,534) to $600 (P25,068).
The equity bill has already passed the US Senate?s Veteran?s Affairs Committee and the House Veterans Committee last year, 14 years since its introduction in the American Congress.
The principal author of the law in the Philippine Senate, Sen. Richard Gordon, said ?this is the best chance ever? to push for the passage of the equity law.
?Our veterans have grown old,? Gordon said.
He recalled that US President Theodore Roosevelt had promised the pensions and benefits to Filipino veterans but this had been rescinded. Efforts to get the benefits had not prospered in the stints of the next US presidents.
Gordon, whose father is an American, said he started working on the recently signed law when he was a mayor of Olongapo City.
The senator will leave for the United States on Thursday to meet with American legislators.
President Arroyo said a joint executive-legislative team led by Senator Richard Gordon and Sorsogon Rep. Jose Solis would leave for Washington this month to lobby for the passage of the veterans bill.
?But, of course, we will begin our lobbying with [US] Ambassador Kristie Kenney right here in Mt. Samat,? said Ms Arroyo, eliciting a smile from Kenney who was seated beside Japanese Ambassador Makoto Katsura.
If enacted, an estimated 7,000 Filipino-American veterans living in the United States and 12,000 Filipino veterans in the Philippines, who both fought during WWII, would restore US veterans? status and be eligible for Veterans Affairs disability pension benefits.
Ms Arroyo told the veterans that despite the lack of budget, the government had started paying off debts to the veterans starting 2005.
She said at least P2 billion in old age pension arrears had been settled.
?Millions and millions of pesos? of benefits had been paid to 3,000 soldiers while tuition of 5,000 children of veterans had also been paid, she added.
Ms Arroyo thanked Congress for agreeing to double the budget for the payment of the arrears this year. Congress, she said, approved P3.5 billion.
The Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) has made it easy for veterans to receive their pensions and benefits through the ATMs (automated teller machines).
Out of the 240,000 pensioners in the PVAO?s list, only some 60,000 are WW II veterans. Most on the list are widows of veterans, according to PVAO Administrator and Defense Undersecretary Ernesto Carolina.
The agency received a total of P15 billion this year to pay pensions for old age, death and disability, Carolina said. Disability pay stands at P1,700 monthly; the death pension for spouses and children, P1,000 monthly; hospitalization, P400 daily; and education, P24,000 a year.