• Kagitingan in the 21st century

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    MARIELLE ANTONIO

    Can we still exemplify the value that won us our freedom?

    THE Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO), headquartered in Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo, has been doing its utmost to care for Filipino veterans. Over the years, it has focused on distributing a monthly pension, death and disability pension, medical benefits, and burial assistance; but the reality of limited resources and its impact on PVAO’s ability to honor those who risked their lives to defend the nation, has made it necessary for the organization to identify a unifying purpose and a better way forward.

    Undersecretary Ernesto Carolina, who has served as PVAO administrator for the past nine years, calls this unifying purpose “kagitingan”. Usually translated as “valor”, Carolina describes it as a love of country that enables the individual to transcend love of self—a value best exemplified by our Filipino veterans that no longer seems to pervade society’s decision-making process. “It [kagitingan]seems to have faded away after the war,” he says. “Ang pagmamahal sa bayan ay natabunan nang pagmamahal sa sarili.” (“Love of country has been overshadowed by love of self.”)

    For Carolina, one manifestation of this is corruption, which, among other things, has prevented PVAO from carrying out critical assistance. He asks, “Kung mahal mo ang bayan, bakit mo nanakawan?” (If you love the nation, why would you steal from it?}

    These ideas were key in the creation of the Kagitingan Roadmap 2022, PVAO’s action plan toward not only improving its own efficiency but also empowering Filipino veterans. Its vision for 2022 sees “a strong and unified Filipino Veterans Community serving as a reliable partner in nation-building”.

    The roadmap seeks to address serious issues that have built up over the years, including inadequate benefits, delayed pensions, inaccessible healthcare, and poor governance. In 2014, almost 90 percent of World War II veterans were found to be entirely dependent on the monthly old-age pension of P5,000 and an additional monthly disability pension of P1,700. Sixteen thousand one hundred veterans are currently considered indigent. PVAO seeks to reduce this number to zero by 2020 by unifying them under an empowered and credible Veterans Federation of the Philippines (VFP), and by pursuing legislation to reform the pension system and upgrade veterans benefits. Today, the organization is able to report that its effort to increase the monthly old-age pension from P5,000 to P20,000 has gained the increasing support of legislators, with the proposed measure moved up to the committee on appropriations in February.

    Another issue that is just as urgent as these administrative challenges is our waning national appreciation for Filipino veterans and what they symbolize. Informal settlers occupy 15 hectares of the Libingan ng mga Bayani (LNMB), which is constantly desecrated by those who remain unconscious of its status as a resting ground for the country’s heroes. Only 13 out of 43 events mandated to be “commemorative” are observed by the local governments; and many stories of wartime heroism remain undocumented. To this end, the PVAO is working to increase the number of initiatives that can serve as reminders of our veterans’ great historic legacy. These initiatives are called “Kagitingan Builders” and include the development of military shrines, local government ownership and staging of commemorative events, and the production of books, films and other materials.

    As of 2017, PVAO has successfully had Mount Samat National Shrine included in the Bataan Tourism Enterprise Zone, considered to be central Luzon’s flagship tourism zone. It has also secured P356 million for LNMB development this year; and published 14 books on women veterans, accompanied by a Facebook page dedicated to “Amazing Filipino Women Heroes”.

    Because of the roadmap, “kagitingan” has become a powerful rallying cry for PVAO’s leaders, workers, and veterans. It has invigorated the organization to look at both its veterans and the nation’s future defenders as partners in restoring kagitingan as an essential modern-day value. Looking ahead, PVAO hopes that its inclusive strategy can contribute to a cultural transformation that will inspire every Filipino to be a nation-builder.

    Carolina puts it best and leaves us with something to think about as we close April and the Araw ng Kagitingan celebrations: “We owe it to the generations that entitled us to our freedom today to carry out our roles in society with love for our country—ever more with kagitingan.”

    The author is a program officer at the Institute for Solidarity in Asia (ISA), a non-profit group that advocates for governance reform and envisions a Dream Philippines where every government institution delivers and every citizen participates and prospers. Contact the author through mantonio@isacenter.org and learn more about the group’s work with the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office (PVAO) through isacenter.org.

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