After ghost soldiers, phantom vets
If there are ghost soldiers, can phantom veterans be far behind?
Senators on Wednesday wondered whether more than 23,000 of those who fought against the Japanese during World War II are still around.
The lawmakers raised this point after the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) asked for P12.3 billion in pension funds for the vets for distribution in 2012.
Adm. Ernesto Carolina, PVAO administrator, said 23,580 veterans were still receiving “total administrative disability” and “old-age” benefits from the agency.
The youngest of these veterans is 85 while the oldest, who lives in Tarlac, is 101, he said.
“They were in their teens, about 17 to 18 years old during the war,” Carolina said.
“The chief of the (Philippine) Army is giving you a quizzical eye,” Sen. Franklin Drilon, chair of the chamber’s finance committee, told Carolina.
Drilon was referring to Lt. Gen. Arturo Ortiz, who was also present at the Senate’s first hearing on the proposed budgets of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“The one who is 101 years old in Tarlac, we saw him. He is alive. We have a few centenarians (on the veterans’ roster),” Carolina said.
An incredulous Sen. Panfilo Lacson suddenly took the microphone.
“We are now in 2011. Anyone born in 1941 would be 70 years old by now,” he noted.
Carolina hinted that inclusion in the roster might have been indiscriminate. “Even if you just welcomed McArthur, if you fought during the war …” he said.
“We will not argue. We will not argue,” Lacson replied.
At hearings of the blue ribbon committee on corruption in the military early this year, senators learned that the troop strength submitted annually by the AFP to Congress for funding was bloated by 20 percent.
George Rabusa, former military budget officer, testified that ghost soldiers accounted for the 20 percent of the troop strength.
Rabusa said the budget for salaries of the ghost soldiers was the main source of an AFP slush fund from which start-up and sendoff gifts amounting to hundreds of millions of pesos for retiring top military officials were sourced.
Rabusa’s revelations prompted the Department of Budget and Management to withhold this year P8.6 billion from the AFP budget and P11 billion from the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) budget for uniformed units, including P9.5 billion from the Philippine National Police.
The amounts represented 20 percent of the salaries for unfilled positions in the AFP and DILG for 2011.
Drilon said he had doubts about Carolina’s figures and warned that pensions given to veterans and retirees could eventually exceed that allocated for the military’s capital outlay.
“Every year, we have some colorful narrations (about) these veterans,” he noted. “You better be serious about this because all of the AFP budget could just go to pensions,” Drilon said.
At a press briefing after the hearing, Drilon said the life expectancy of the Filipino male was only 68 years.
“Therefore these (veterans have already achieved) higher than the life expectancy. I certainly doubt that they exclusively belong to WWII veterans,” he said.
Drilon said the number must be examined “because (there are) requirements (before one can receive) the pension and because of the military’s current difficulty in sourcing funds for total operations.”
Inquirer archives show that 250,000 Filipinos “fought alongside American troops against the Japanese” during WWII.
The proposed military budget for 2012 totals P106.9 billion. Salaries for soldiers in active service and other military personnel are pegged at P43 billion. The pensions for veterans and military retirees would be P34 billion.
“Only P71.686 billion would be for operations,” Drilon said. “The figure is distorted by the pension payments. Since these would be nondiscretionary expenses, we should get these out of the budget of the AFP.”
Military officers have warned that the salaries of active personnel would equal that of pensions given to retirees and veterans most probably in 2016.
At the same time, the AFP is bracing for a surge in the number of retirees in 2014 when most soldiers who enlisted during martial law will retire.
Sen. Ralph Recto, chair of the Senate ways and means committee, said the situation could create a security and fiscal crisis.
Carolina said that based on records, an average of 250 WWII veterans die every month.
“How do you project death?” Lacson asked.
Carolina said his figure came from “empirical data from the last five years. But (the loss) is offset by the (entry of) new retirees (in the roster).”
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