The length of his cot spans the width of his home. On the front of the house is a sari-sari store run by his youngest daughter. A few steps away is an assortment of plastic drawers, shoeboxes, and his veteran’s vest on a hanger. On the wall are mounted a flat-screen TV and graduation pictures of children and grandchildren, as well as a faded photo of his wife, who died in 1998. Welcome to Tatang Larry’s world.
Hilario Lascota, World War II veteran, just turned 88 this year and boasts of being as sharp as ever. In fact, he can still remember the pain of the ant bites when Japanese officials tied him and several others to a tree. He reckons he was about 16 then.
That morning at 4 am, he said, the Japanese came to their sleepy town of Umingan, Pangasinan, just near the province’s boundary with Nueva Ecija. All the men were rounded up. A soldier tried to take his chicken. He refused, and so he was shoved and beaten and tied where the ants were. If it were not for the intervention of the town’s chief of police, he would have died there.
What happened instead was that they were hauled to another town and subjected to hard labor. He remembers how they were fed—with pig’s fare. And then for no apparent reason they were released, but had to walk 50 kilometers back to their hometown.
“I only knew how to farm,” he said. “So when I returned to Umingan, there was nothing else to do but join the guerillas.” He became an errand boy, cook and messenger. When General McArthur arrived to liberate the Philippines, they were given arms. “I did not know to use them but I was an eager learner. We fought with much courage and pride.”
After liberation, Tatang Larry came to Manila to continue his career as a uniformed man. He retired after 20 years, helping his wife with her carinderia business and eventually driving a jeepney for a living. He stopped in 1992 when the daily exposure to smoke affected his eyes.
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Today, Tatang Larry says his life is more comfortable than it ever was. His six remaining children (out of the nine he had) all have families of their own. One has obtained an engineering degree and is now working in Cebu. The other five are close by, living in the same compound where he is, right across the street from the South Triangle barangay hall in Quezon City. “They did not want to pay rent so I chopped up my house and gave everybody a small share.”
He receives a modest but regular pension from the government through the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office. He uses this to buy maintenance medication and some herbal concoctions. One of his grandchildren, a 17-year-old boy who just finished high school, acts as his bodyguard and caregiver although he says he hardly needs any caring for despite his age. “I had a mild stroke last year but I am fine now, and aside from that I would consider myself healthy.” He gets a headache ang gets dizzy when the weather is hot—but who doesn’t?
“I am lucky. I can call on my family when I need something.”
And given the opportunity to start a small business from the proceeds of the $10,000 benefit given by the Obama administration to WWII veterans, he decided to open a computer shop, now managed by a daughter and a son-in-law. On a sweltering summer day, the place is packed by the young and not-so-young, playing games and connecting on social media.
The TV set just above his bed is just one of his many forms of entertainment. And early every morning, Tatang Larry takes a jeep to the Quezon Memorial Circle and jogs there. Sometimes, he says with a wink, one or another lady friend accompanies him.
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Tatang Larry is aware that not all veterans like him share his comfortable life. He knows some have yet to receive what is due them. Some have benefits that do not sufficiently cover their medical – and sometimes their families’—needs. Others have no families to be with, in the first place.
One of the roles that Tatang Larry relishes is that of being district commander of his veterans group. Initially, they had a lot of members but now they are down to just over 40. He likes spending time with his fellow veterans, exchanging stories, reliving their days of battle, and advising them on their problems. He also takes it upon himself to counsel them about benefits—especially those who do not know what they are supposed to receive, and whom to bring their concerns to.
He keeps going back to his plea for the current administration to increase their benefits if it were really serious about recognizing the contribution of veterans to the history of our nation. “Parang kinalimutan na kami,” he says.
His wish is that those who promise them higher benefits would make good on their word, and that veterans’ concerns be heard and acted on—not only on the week of April 9, when everybody seems to suddenly remember their valor.