ANGELES CITY, PHILIPPINES —
A worn-down U.S. veterans’ cemetery in the Philippines that has been in limbo for nearly two decades once again belongs to the U.S. government. Last month, President Barack Obama signed into law the placement of Clark Veterans Cemetery - just north of Manila - under the American Battle Monuments Commission.
The ground of the Clark Veterans Cemetery is spongy under the brown, crunchy grass.
Retired Army First Sergeant John Gilbert says this is because of the thick layer of gray lahar and ash that settled after nearby Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991.
First Sgt. John Gilbert at the Clark Veterans Cemetery in the Philippines, Feb. 22, 2013. (Photo: VOA/Simone Orendain)
“As soon as the rainy season ends it just turns to dust,” he explains, adding there's no money for a sprinkler system. "Yeah, that’s always been a desire…Here’s another one that’s pretty low,” Gilbert adds.
Gilbert points to a mildew-streaked gravestone peeking out of the ground. There are more than 8,600 markers here, many badly worn down, on this eight-hectare property near a major intersection.
Gilbert heads a group of volunteers at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2485 near what used to be Clark U.S. Air Force Base about 100 kilometers north of Manila. Since 1994, the VFW Post has maintained the cemetery while still holding burials.
“About the only thing we’ve been able to do is keep it presentable," he says. "So we’re excited about the changeover.”
Among rows of marble name plates sunken between mounds of weed-strewn ashy soil, Gilbert, 65, touts the historical artifacts here. There is a marker for one of the first Filipino Scouts who died in 1900 during the Spanish-American War. Also a mini marble obelisk that originally stood at Fort McKinley in Manila, pockmarked by World War II artillery shelling, dedicated to the more than 1,000 unknowns buried here.
Nearby Clark Air Force Base and the cemetery were abandoned after the Mount Pinatubo eruption. Soon afterward the Philippines ejected all U.S. military bases. The U.S. pullout left the cemetery in limbo.
Two and a half years ago Dennis Wright, a retired Navy captain, formed a lobby group to try to convince Washington officials to return the cemetery to its federal designation. Similar to the well-known Manila American Cemetery where soldiers killed during World War II are buried, supporters wanted a recognized burial place for decorated veterans who survived the war.
“They died well after the war and were buried here. Now think of the dichotomy. If you died during the war, you’d get to be revered in Manila. But if you survived the war, you got forgotten here. It makes no sense,” he says.
Although many American veterans settled in the Philippines and wish to be buried here, ties with the U.S. military remain a sensitive topic among some in the Philippines.
Congressman Walden Bello and a handful of lawmakers have been calling for an end to the 10-year old Visiting Forces Agreement the country has with the U.S., which is focused on counterterrorism training. Bello says the Clark Veterans Cemetery should rightfully honor American service people. But he has consistently pushed for American troops in the country’s restive south to leave. Plus, Bello points to recent environmental mishaps with the U.S. increasing port calls to the Philippines.
“The more we are likely to witness such incidents and the more we would see a return to the kind of close military relationship with the United States that’s not been healthy historically for the Philippines,” Bello says.
Under the federal designation, the Philippines will host the cemetery free of charge or taxes. The Clark Development Corporation, which turned the former air base into a commercial hub, sees the new status of the burial ground as a selling point for tourism.
Dennis Wright says the two countries still have to come up with an agreement that will allow the U.S. government to run the armed services cemetery on Philippine land. He says it could take months or one year before Clark Veterans Cemetery starts to receive the allocated $5 million in federal funding.