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Senate passes historic vote ensuring health care relief for military veterans exposed to burn pits

Comedian and activist Jon Stewart, middle, speaks during a news conference about military burn pits. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

Brielle Robinson couldn’t get her dad back on her 9th birthday Thursday, but she did get a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in honor of Sgt. Heath Robinson, her grandmother said, and a bill passed in his name to help thousands of other veterans sickened and dying from toxic burn pits.

Robinson, a former medic, got a rare form of lung cancer in 2017 after serving in Iraq, on the same base as President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, 10 years earlier.

Robinson died in 2020, fighting not just against his illnesses, but against military bureaucracy and for legislation that would spare other military families in even worse straits than his.

“He fought valiantly for three years to survive as long as he could for his daughter,” his mother-in-law, Susan Zeier, told reporters as the Senate passed the Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act.

She made a particular point of wearing one of Robinson’s Army jackets — something she’s done since 2018 to lobby Congress, inspired by 9/11 first responders who wore their gear to Capitol Hill getting Congress to help them.

“Today with this bill passing the Senate, I think it’s time to retire it,” Zeier said. “I no longer have to carry Heath on my shoulders, while I’m advocating for all the other veterans out there who are sick and dying.”

According to the VA, some 3.5 million American warfighters were exposed to air from poisonous burn pits in deployments overseas since the nation went to war in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.

Growing numbers have gotten sick or died from that exposure, having breathed in smoke all-too-similar to the toxic clouds surrounding the destroyed World Trade Center.

The smoke came from massive open-air pits that the military used to incinerate plastics, medical waste, ammunition and anything else, even setting it aflame with jet fuel, much like the accelerant that burned the twin towers.

But around three-quarters of ill service members and veterans who submitted claims were denied by the VA because toxic exposures were not covered.

The bill would guarantee that any veteran who gets one of about two dozen specific illnesses — ranging from various types of cancer to breathing disorders — gets benefits without going through all the red tape.

The bill also improves care for some Vietnam veterans and people who served at nuclear sites. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the cost is some $280 billion over 10 years.

Modeled on 9/11 legislation, the centerpiece of the measure focuses on the burn pits and was written by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

“Our service members and their families give everything for our country. And as a nation we promise to care for them when they come home,” Gillibrand said. “At last, we are honoring that promise and paying the price we owe them for our freedoms, our values and our safety.”

The legislation will need to be approved by the House, but that is expected to be noncontroversial. If all goes according to plan, the legislation will reach President Joe Biden’s desk by Independence Day.

“For too long, our nation’s veterans have faced an absurd indignity: they enlisted to serve our country, went abroad in good health, and came back home only to get sick from toxic exposure endured while in the line of duty,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The Senate’s changes to the bill, negotiated by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont. and Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran, slowed the implementation but won strong Republican backing.

Republicans had been concerned the VA would not be able to deal with the surge in ill veterans, leading to chaos and disappointment.

“There’s always, always a cost of war. It’s always high. It’s always dramatic. It’s always something that costs people their lives,” said Moran on the Senate floor. “The cost of war is not fully paid when the war is over. We are now on the verge of honoring that commitment to Americans, veterans and their families.”

While there was a lot of goodwill at the celebration of the bill’s passage, 9/11 advocate John Feal, who worked with Jon Stewart to get the burn pits legislation passed, said there’s a lesson to be learned when Congress stalls in passing an important bill that everyone knows needs to pass.

“Just like the 9/11 bill, there was a lot of people that didn’t want it done,” Feal said. “We have created a blueprint over the last 15 years on how to get legislation passed. Anybody in America who has an issue that’s dear to their heart can follow this blueprint. It’s called put your foot on their neck and don’t let up.”


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