Brielle Robinson, daughter of the late Army Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, joins veterans advocacy groups, activists, politicians and fellow victims’ families during a news conference about military burn pits legislation outside the U.S. Capitol on March 29, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Members of Idaho’s congressional delegation would probably not receive any heroism awards for their actions relating to the PACT Act, also known as the “burn pit” bill.
When the act came up for a vote, our congressional troops flat failed to protect the backs of sick veterans. U.S. Reps. Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson voted against final passage of the bill in the U.S. House. Not to be outdone, U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch both voted against the legislation on three separate occasions.
The act provides health care and benefits to veterans who suffered cancer and other ailments from exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and extends benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Congress gave final approval to the Act on Aug. 3, after Republican senators were shamed into submission by veterans’ groups and comedian Jon Stewart. Risch and Crapo joined just nine other GOP senators in voting against final passage of the act.
Both of our senators talk big about how much they love our veterans, but that happy talk does not always translate into action. We should not be surprised, because the Washington establishment has been historically indifferent to the health needs of American veterans.
For well over a decade after the Vietnam War ended, the Veterans Administration and Congress routinely denied care and benefits to Vietnam veterans for a wide range of service-related health problems, including post-traumatic stress and illnesses related to Agent Orange. Vets were left to fend for themselves, resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths, including numerous suicides. It took many years to convince official Washington that veterans were suffering from health conditions related to their Vietnam service and that the country was honor bound to help them.
Veterans started claiming that they had illnesses caused by breathing toxic fumes from burn pits shortly after the First Gulf War. First responders to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made similar claims a decade later. The VA became aware of scientific evidence linking serious health problems with burn pit smoke in 2009 but chose to ignore it. Congress did not seem to care either because no action was taken. The government’s stance was dogged denial, much like its earlier response to Agent Orange.
The PACT Act calls for a dramatic reversal of this shameful governmental conduct. The act makes a presumption that certain illnesses are covered if the veteran was exposed to a burn pit. The veteran no longer has an almost impossible burden of proving his or her condition was caused by the toxic smoke. The act specifies a number of covered cancers, including pancreatic cancer.
To illustrate the change, when I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2017, I learned there was no scientific way to prove the source of this type of cancer. It is not a cancer that was covered under Agent Orange legislation. Although I’d been exposed to Agent Orange, I knew it would be fruitless to make a claim for health care coverage. A veteran had to prove the cancer was caused by Agent Orange, which was an impossibility. Similarly, prior to passage of the PACT Act, a burn pit victim was unlikely to be successful in making a case because he or she had the burden of proving the cause. The act now puts the law on the side of sick veterans.
Our senators had a clear choice on Aug. 3 – either vote for burn pit victims, or vote against them. There was just one bill on the table. The two claimed their vote was influenced by an elusive $400 billion slush fund that nobody seemed to be able to adequately explain.
Veterans deserve better from those who supposedly represent them in Congress, particularly those who persist in claiming they are appreciative of veterans and doing their utmost to serve them. They should be judged on what they do, not what they say.
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