A Man with Two Countries
Bryan Ramos works to recognize Filipino WWII vets
Published in 2019 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
on February 14, 2019
Updated on July 15, 2019
The first time Bryan Ramos represented a client in court, he was a biology major at Florida State University.
His parents, immigrants from the Philippines, were having a dispute with a lawn-mowing company over alleged lack of payment. The company, he assumed, hoped the parents would just pay. “That’s something very prevalent in the immigrant community: They don’t know what to do, so they pay the money to make the problem go away,” Ramos says.
Instead, Ramos fought back, and in mediation, opposing counsel quickly dropped the case. “There was nothing else to do,” Ramos says with a laugh. “I showed them the cashed checks.” As payment for his first legal services, his parents took him to Arby’s. “And my mom helped me with some laundry,” he says.
Ramos’ family arrived in the U.S. when he was just 18 months old. After a few cold winters in Ohio, they moved to Tallahassee, where Ramos became aware that he stood out. “I was the first Asian-American at my high school,” he says. “I wasn’t black, I wasn’t white, I was something different. And I wasn’t completely Filipino, because I’d grown up in the States. So I felt like a man without a country. Or, really, a man with two countries.”
After college, Ramos ran a community service agency but felt no one took him seriously. “They only respected lawyers,” he says. Trying to figure out a good career path, he sat down with his father. “I had a law school application, a Marine Corp application and a culinary school application on my desk. My dad’s like, ‘We didn’t bring you to this country to cook for anybody, so throw that out. And if you wanted to be in the military, we could’ve stayed in the Philippines.’”
In 2005, Ramos started his own firm, specializing in workers’ compensation. He also began helping Filipino World War II veterans.
Ramos’ grandfather, who died when Ramos was 10, was one of 260,000 Filipinos who served in the U.S. military during the war, fighting the Japanese under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Sparked by his grandfather’s story, Ramos began looking into the history of those soldiers, 15,000 of whom are alive and living in the U.S. What he discovered disturbed him. Even though these units had extremely high casualty rates—57,000 were killed and many more wounded or missing in action—they’d received little recognition. On top of that, in 1946 Congress passed the Rescission Act, which retroactively denied all benefits to Filipino veterans.
“Of the 66 countries allied with the United States during World War II, the Philippines was the only country that didn’t receive military benefits as promised,” Ramos says.
In 2007, a bill was introduced in Congress, which would make a one-time payment to all the Filipino veterans living in the U.S. Ramos wrote to his representatives about it and began taking more of an interest. That bill was signed into law in 2009.
His volunteer work truly stepped up with the 2015 effort to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Filipino veterans. His task was to lobby Georgia’s congressional delegation to support the bill. When he started, just two lawmakers had signed on. By the time he’d finished, 11 of Georgia’s 14 reps backed the bill. He also called reps from Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. “We got overwhelming support,” he says.
Now that the medals are authorized (more or less: see sidebar), Ramos organizes ceremonies across the Southeast to award them. “It’s really quite moving,” he says. “These veterans, God bless them, they’re in their 90s, some are 100 years old. And they’re so proud of their service. As they should be.” At a 2017 ceremony in Washington, D.C., 30 Filipino vets received medals, some presented by Ramos. “It was a great way for me to connect with my grandfather and his band of brothers,” he says.
He hasn’t stopped. He’s currently working on getting recognition for Filipino-American vets in U.S. history textbooks; commissioning a memorial statue in Georgia; contributing to a book on the differences between legal systems in the U.S. and the Philippines; and encouraging Filipino Americans to run for legislative and judicial seats.
“Filipinos have been here for more than a century,” he says. “Yet politically, we’re almost invisible.
“Whenever Filipino nationals become American citizens, a lot of them ask me, ‘Attorney’—they often call me Attorney—’how do I become a good American’? I love that.”
Although Filipino veterans of World War II were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, no funds were allocated. It’s been left to the public to raise money to purchase medals and organize ceremonies. The Filipino Veterans and Recognition Project exists to draw attention to their story, encourage the creation of documentaries and museum exhibits, and build memorials in their honor. filvetrep.org/donatetoday