A win for veterans
The Senate passes the PACT Act
Samantha Turner, a disabled U.S. Army veteran who served in Kuwait, says that a commonly used way to get rid of human waste on the battlefield has turned into a widespread veterans’ health problem.
“I would say that if you know a veteran who has served from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War to the war on terror then you know someone who has been exposed to environmental toxins that had a detrimental effect on their health,” Turner told WORLD News.
That problem, she says, centers on the use of burn pits. Their medical—and political—fallout led Turner earlier this week to join Vets for the People and many other veteran-advocacy groups in front of the U.S. Capitol. The rally called on the Senate to address the issue through a highly anticipated piece of legislation that would help provide medical treatment to veterans exposed to burn pits.
But this wasn’t the first time the Senate had considered the bill.
S.3373, better known as the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics or “PACT Act,” had already made its way through Congress long before Turner arrived at the nation’s capital and, after an initially warm reception, had been rejected. But after widespread public backlash and pressure from veterans’ groups put the bill in the national spotlight, the Senate reversed course and passed S.337 by a 86-11 vote on Tuesday. The bill now awaits President Joe Biden’s signature. He has said he intends to sign it into law.
“President Biden looks forward to signing the bipartisan PACT Act, delivering for America’s veterans and their families, and demonstrating that we can … come together where we agree to get big things done for our country,” the White House said in a statement on Tuesday.
Turner, who is directly affected by the bill, says the law is a game-changer for military families across America.
“When you’re in a combat zone you often don’t have access to sanitation systems … water treatment or solid waste removal,” Turner explained. “So what happened a lot, especially in austere environments, is we would mix that trash with JP8 jet fuel and we would stir it with sticks so that all of it got burned. … We would breathe that stuff in.”
Everything from human waste to lithium batteries regularly become ingredients for the mix. Turner says veterans were often aware that something wasn’t right but didn’t fully know the medical complications that could accompany close proximity to burn pits. The consequences can vary widely based on genetics, diet, lifestyle, etc. In some cases it can cause forms of cancer, or, as in Turner’s case, leave combatants with such conditions as asthma. And although predictably harmful, Congress has made no provisions to directly fund the medical costs associated with injuries related to burn pits—until now.
The PACT Act aims to confront medical problems before they begin.
“This bill makes presumptive service connectedness,” Turner said. “And that basically means the [Veterans Health Administration] says … ‘we know you were there, we can assume that you were exposed to these things and therefore we will watch you and monitor you for different diseases and when you contract those diseases, we will cover them.’ This bill would also provide lifesaving care to people who are experiencing cancer right now.”
Most significantly, The PACT Act takes a lot of the burden of proof off of veterans. Veterans suffering from burn-pit related complications won’t have to prove service connections if experiencing one of the 23 conditions outlined in the bill. The White House says that will help cut down on the amount of paperwork veterans go through before receiving care and thus speed up the process. The Veterans Health Administration will be required to seek out independent evaluations on how well the process works.
The bill originated in the Senate, and, after passing an initial vote in both chambers with broad bipartisan support, was temporarily shuttled back to the House of Representatives to resolve a minor funding technicality. Per the Constitution, only the House of Representatives may create legislation that deals with revenue measures. But when the bill returned to the Senate, the details of the bill had changed. More specifically, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Party had announced plans to pass a separate partisan spending bill that Republicans had thought was dead in the water. Upon finding that was no longer the case, 42 Republicans voted against S. 3373, causing it to fail.
The news that a bill aimed to protect veterans had fallen victim to an unrelated political conflict sparked outrage from inside the Capitol and far outside Washington. A number of public figures came to support the bill, most notably political commentator and comedian Jon Stewart.
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut arrived at the Capitol on Monday afternoon, a day before the bill’s successful vote. Addressing Turner and the other advocacy groups, he expressed frustration at the number of votes that had suddenly turned against S.3373.
“This issue should not be partisan and it wasn’t,” Blumenthal said. “There was no reason for them to flip. It’s the same bill and they were for it before they were against it.”
One day later, the Senate voted on a largely untouched version of the bill, regaining support from a majority of Republican representatives. Thirty-one Republicans shifted their vote in support of S.3373, clearing the needed 60-vote threshold.
The passage of the PACT Act is also a significant win for Biden, who called for the legislation during his State of the Union Address earlier this year. His son, who passed away in 2015, is thought to have died because of glioblastoma linked to burn-pit exposure.
“They come home—many of the fittest and best-trained warriors in the world—never the same,” Biden said during his address. “One of those was my son, Major Beau Biden. I don’t know for sure if the burn-pit that he lived near in Iraq … is the cause of his brain-cancer, but I am committed to finding out everything we can. … I am calling on Congress to pass a law to make sure that veterans devastated by toxins in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and the comprehensive health care they deserve.”
Biden is expected to sign S.3373 into law later this week.
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