Veterans Day here in America is the one time of the year when we stop and celebrate the patriots who served this country.
While I celebrate all those who sacrificed their lives, I especially celebrate “my patriot,” my grandfather who is very close to me. And this year, Veterans Day had an even deeper meaning for me as I humbly represented him and the rest of our family in receiving an honor he truly deserves.
On October 25, I received a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of my family, for my late grandfather, in a bipartisan ceremony attended by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. The event was mounted to honor the Filipino and Filipino-American veterans who fought under the American flag during World War 2.
My grandfather, Mayor Ramon Bagatsing of Manila, was a survivor of the Bataan Death March and served in the Battle of Manila under General Douglas MacArthur.
Nearly 75 years ago, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an order for Filipino forces to join the US Armed Forces of the Far East to fight the Axis of Powers during the war. My grandfather enlisted as a First Sergeant in 1941, and succeeded to the rank of Major in 1946. For his military service, he was awarded the American Defense Ribbon and the Philippine Defense Ribbon.
Lolo taught me that patriotism is selflessness for the benefit of others. He did not talk often about the war, but I remember some details from the rare times that he did.
“We walked all day and you should not stop or you will get shot,” I recall him say. He would also talk about how he survived the Death March in Betis, Pampanga where a “good samaritan” family gave him sanctuary. The war and his survival instilled in him a strong sense of ethic, discipline and gratitude.
After the war, he worked as a driver for a company during the day while finishing his law degree at night. He entered public service first as a congressman and then became the mayor of Manila for 15 years.
He was an advocate for his fellow veterans as National Commander of Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. He was also an active member of American Legion and Philippine Veterans Legion.
My grandfather was a model of courage who lived his life serving others. He believed that he survived the atrocities of war to give back. To do so, he founded one of the largest scholarship foundations in the Philippines, providing citizens the chance to receive quality education. He was also longtime chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, a governor for the Lion’s Club International, and a grand knight for the Knights of Columbus.
Moreover, as an amputee, he had genuine concern for persons with disabilities and helped underprivileged amputees. I have fond memories of watching him swim with one leg while we chatted about my school life.
During the gala dinner at Washington, I sat across another Filipino veteran who knew Lolo, and remembered him as a devout Catholic, who marked his birthdays by spending the night at Manila jail, conducting retreats and listening to the incarcerated.
United States Speaker Paul Ryan, who presented the Congressional Gold Medal that morning at the Capitol, eloquently prefaced it by saying, “Those who fought for freedom are never forgotten.” The greatest moment of the ceremony for me was the Parade of Colors when the US Army Band began to play the national anthem.
Standing in front of me was a 95-year old Filipino veteran who stood up and proudly saluted the flags. I looked around and wept tears of joy as I watched the other WW2 veterans stand up from their wheelchairs to do the same.
What does it mean to be “patriotic” in today’s trying times? These veterans exemplify what it is to be a true patriot—the devotion to the countries they fought for. They are nurturers of liberty and freedom that we often take for granted. They are symbols of unity that transcend divisiveness in today’s tumultuous times.
Celestino Almeda, a 100-year-old Filipino veteran, received a standing ovation during his speech when he quoted, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”.
As for Lolo, my patriot, he will always be a role model of courage to me and my children. A constant reminder that courage can overcome anything, and true satisfaction comes from serving others.