Blind veterans erupted in anger and outrage Thursday after Senate Republicans suddenly rejected a widely-supported bipartisan measure that would have expanded medical coverage for millions of veterans exposed to toxic burning stoves while on duty.
Supporters of Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson honoring our pledge to fight the Comprehensive Toxic Substances Act – or PACT Act – overwhelmingly expected the bill passed by the House to be forwarded to the President’s office for signature.
But in a decision that shocked and confused veterans groups on Wednesday night, 41 Senate Republicans blocked passage of the bill, including 25 who had backed it a month ago.
“We really expected yesterday to be an easy procedural vote to pass,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit veterans organization. “That was the absolute expectation.”
The PACT Act would have expanded VA health care eligibility to more than 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans who were exposed to toxins while serving in the military.
The Senate passed the original legislation 84-14 in June. It underwent minor changes when it moved to the House, where it passed 342-88. When the bill returned to the Senate, the bill hadn’t changed much, but the views — and votes — of 25 senators did.
While it’s unclear what caused the reversal, veterans believe the move was political.
“We’ve seen partisanship and games in Congress for years,” Butler said. “But what is shocking is that so many senators would literally be willing to gamble with the lives of veterans so openly like this.”
“They are fabricating reasons to vote against legislation that they literally voted for last month,” Butler added. “And so it’s really a new level of depression.”
Veterans who were exposed to toxins during deployments said the lives of sick and dying people who served the nation are at stake.
“It’s annoying. It’s frustrating,” said Tom Porter, 54, who developed asthma after spending a year in Afghanistan with the US Navy Reserve from 2010 to 2011.
During the first week of his deployment, Porter said he suffered a severe lung reaction and could not breathe.
Le Roy Torres, 49, who was diagnosed with lung disease and toxic brain injury after being deployed to Iraq with the US military, said he was devastated by the failure of the bill and urged lawmakers to meet immediately.
“I know these senators are getting ready for a break. But I had no respite when I was deployed,” he said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to go home until they understand that.”
“I was taught in the military not to accept defeat and never to give up,” he added. “I will continue to insist on this issue.”
Torres’ wife, Rosie, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Burn Pits 360, said the 25 senators who reversed their votes “should be ashamed of themselves.”
In protest, she and other advocates plan to camp on the steps of the US Capitol on Thursday night.
“These veterans fought for our freedom during the war,” she said. “These are partisan tactics on the backs of sick and dying veterans.”
The PACT Act was named after Heath Robinson, an Ohio National Guard sergeant who was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq. He died in 2020 of lung cancer, which he blamed on exposure to the burn pit.
Open air fireplaces were common on US military bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hazardous materials, ranging from electronics and vehicles to human waste, were routinely doused with jet fuel and set on fire, spewing toxic and carcinogenic fumes into the air.
Many more have developed cancers, respiratory illnesses and other serious conditions as a direct result of exposure to toxins, according to veterans groups.
President Joe Biden, who championed the PACT Act, said he believed his late son Beau Biden’s brain cancer was linked to exposure to burning fireplaces while deployed to Iraq in 2008.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., who voted against the legislation in June, remained strongly critical of the bill. Yesterday, after the vote, he said the bill included a “budget trick” that shifted $400 billion over 10 years from the “discretionary spending category to the mandatory spending category”, which he considered as unreasonable. His view did not change in Wednesday’s vote.
However, the opinions of Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., certainly did.
Johnson voted for the bill in June, but voted against it on Wednesday. He said in a statement that the bill “opens the door to more reckless government spending.”
Why Republicans, like Johnson, changed their minds a month after the legislation passed remains unclear, and it was confusing and unclear to veterans and advocates who shared their anger in Washington, D.C. , Thursday.
Comedian Jon Stewart, who has advocated for 9/11 first responders and military veterans for years, excoriated Republican lawmakers outside the Capitol on Thursday, angrily describing their opposition to the bill as “an embarrassment to the Senate, for the country, for the founders”. .”
“Their constituents are dying and they’re going to do it at recess,” Stewart said in fiery, expletive-laden remarks. “You know, tell their Cancer to take a break, tell their Cancer to stay home and go visit their families. It’s a shame. If it’s America first, America is [expletive].”