Three Days in January: King, Pope, & Hero
By Jon Melegrito
Letter from Washington
It was a memorable three days here in the nation's capital. It began on a Sunday with Filipinos in the DC area witnessing at least part of Pope Francis' historic visit to the Philippines through telecast. And it ended on a high note on a Tuesday, with a Purple Heart Presentation in honor of a 94-year-old Filipino World War II veteran and a very upbeat State of the Nation speech by President Obama before a joint session of Congress. In between, the nation paused to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. We also quietly marked our 71st birthday, preceeded a day earlier with a much livelier celebration of my granddaughter Maya's eighth natal day.
Filipino World War II veteran Jesus M. Baltazar's book cover of Baltazar's memoirs titled "The Naked Solder". (Photo by Jon Melegrito)
Year 2015 is off to a good start
On the Pope's visit, close to 300 Filipinos gathered at Gaston Hall in Georgetown University to watch a delayed telecast of the Eucharistic Celebration in Manila on January 18. The showing was woven into a symposium where speakers, including HE Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington DC and John Carr, Director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought & Public Life talked about the life of the Pope. Entitled "Il Papa in Manila: An Afternoon with Pope Francis," the 8-hour event featured a young adults program, music by Couples for Christ, a video message from Cardinal Tagle and a community reception. Mrs. Vicky Cuisia, wife of Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia, wanted to replicate the Eucharistic Congress that she attended in Georgia," said Ado Paglinawan of the Couples for Christ Foundation for Family and Life. Already, plans are underway for a huge Filipino participation when Pope Francis comes to Philadelphia in September.
On Jan. 20, Filipinos in the DC area witnessed another historic event. The US Army presented the Purple Heart to Sergeant Jesus M. Baltazar at an impressive ceremony in Ft. Meyer, Virginia. I watched in awe as the lanky 94-year-old World War II veteran walked in a proud stride to receive his award – for injuries suffered fighting against the Japanese invaders in 1942. Except for his frail body, you wouldn't know that he's battling with Stage IV lung cancer, and was only given eight months to live a year ago. But there he was nine months later, executing a firm salute during the parade in review, shaking hands with the hundred and more well-wishers who lined up after the ceremony, and sharing war stories with reporters during the reception.
And what a life
He served in three wars: World War II, Vietnam and Korea. He was 21 years old when he and his Filipino and American comrades, all 76,000 of them, surrendered. Limping from shrapnel wounds on his left leg, he didn't think he could make the 66-mile Death March. On the third day, he escaped. A couple of Filipino fishermen sneaked into their encampment while the prisoners were resting for the night and offered to rescue anyone who would pay them $20. "That saved my life," Baltazar said. "I happened to have a $20 bill rolled up and hidden in my shoes so my captors won't find it." After recovering from his wounds, he joined the guerillas and provided valuable intelligence to his commanders. Following his discharge from the US Army, he served for 20 years in the US Air Force and later as security consultant in the US State Department.
Old soldiers may fade away, but not Baltazar. His age has not hampered him from doing the things he likes to do – especially gardening and cooking. He also started to write a book. With the help of his children, he completed the first draft a few months ago and had a few copies printed for his family. He chose the title "The Naked Soldier," he says, because "we were recruited to fight without uniforms, without military training, without supplies and without good weapons. We relied mainly on our courage and our determination to fight the enemy and defend our country."
Baltazar and his wife Margrit live in Falls Church, Virginia. Having resided near the nation's capital since 1951, he joined fellow veterans in lobbying for benefits and participating in demonstrations over the years. When Congress finally passed a bill, which provided one-time lump sum payments of $15,000 to Filipino World War II veterans ($9,000 to those living in the Philippines), Baltazar was among the 18,000 who received their equity compensation.
But receiving the Purple Heart is "the culmination of his entire career," said his son, Tom Baltazar. "It really is. We have heard these stories of how he was wounded since we were little children and really the question came up a few years ago, 'Where's the purple heart?'"
Added his wife: "I'm just overwhelmed. Only in America I think would somebody be honored like this."
Baltazar was previously awarded the bronze star, but for his family, this recognition has special meaning.
"I'm very grateful that I finally got it and that all the members of my family were here today to witness it," Baltazar said. "I'm sure they'll never forget it and they can pass it along to the next generation."
Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret) said of Baltazar that "he represents all the brave Filipino soldiers who fought under the American flag but are still waiting for the US to recognize their services and sacrifices. It's been 70 years. But we are going to do everything we can to get the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to them as a way of saying thank you for their valuable contributions in the war effort."