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Veterans call rejection of fireplace exposure bill ‘a slap in the face’


James Powers still recoils when he thinks of the smell that wafted over his base while serving in Iraq – a putrid mix of burnt plastic and human waste.

The former soldier recalls the days when the smoke from the burn pits made it too dangerous for helicopters to fly over. While some of his infantrymen never made it out of the war zone, others who did later fell ill from the poisonous fumes they inhaled daily, he said.

Powers now fears a similar fate: “It’s only a matter of time before it happens to me,” he told the Washington Post.

He was among veterans, military family members and advocates who showed up on the steps of the Capitol for the fourth night on Sunday, pledging to stay until Congress passes a bill that covers health care for those exposed to toxins while serving in uniform. Earlier in the day, the head of the Veterans Affairs Department warned that a new Republican proposal could let the agency “ration” veterans’ health care. GOP lawmakers blocked aid from passing last week in what comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime veterans advocate, called a “disgrace.”

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“We fought freely for this country, and now we expect people to fight for us and fight for our basic health care,” said Samantha Turner, an Army veteran who served near burns in Kuwait. Turner, who suffers from sleep apnea, now uses a machine to breathe at night.

“We are not political pawns,” she added.

Although exposure to fireplaces is known to cause cancers, sleep apnea and other respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological conditions, the senior Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said that about 70 % of all toxin-related disability claims are denied due to military incapacitation. prove a link between their conditions and the hazardous substances. For years, activists fought for an extension of veterans’ health care coverage that would remove this burden of proof requirement, culminating in a bill known as the Pact Act.

The bill has been well received by veterans and their loved ones. And it was set to pass after passing the Senate by an 84-14 vote in June.

But when the bill returned to the Senate for a second vote on Thursday after the House made adjustments, 25 Republicans backed down. The bill fell short of the 60 votes required to overcome a buccaneer, with a final tally of 55 to 42 – a situation Turner called a “slap in the face”.

The reversal was widely decried by Democrats, veterans and advocates. Some have accused the GOP of retaliating for the green light Democrats received to pass climate change legislation without a Republican vote.

But Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who twice voted against the bill and moved an amendment, said the cancellations were based on an accounting provision — saying moving some benefit expenses from VA’s discretionary budget to its mandatory budget would “create room in future budgets for $400 billion of totally unrelated and superfluous spending on other matters,” he said in an interview Sunday with CNN.

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Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough argued that Toomey’s proposed amendment could create a scenario in which Congress changes or caps the amount the department spends on veterans’ health care each year. He also said the funds would be phased out after a decade.

“I can’t in good conscience do that because the result will be rationing of care for vets, which I just can’t sign off on,” McDonough told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday.

Toomey fired back, calling McDonough “either misinformed of my proposed amendment, or deliberately dishonest.”

“It wouldn’t cut veterans spending one dime,” Toomey said. “It wouldn’t require care to be rationed. It would not end any program for veterans.

Another procedural vote on the bill is scheduled for Monday. Turner, who has been on the steps of the Capitol for three days, likened the situation to watching “political poker” as some veterans suffer.

Near his place on the steps, a “missing man’s table” was lit by moonlight. It was set with a plate, a candle and a vase tied with a red ribbon.

“It commemorates all of us who failed,” Turner said, “whether in battle or after.”

With her outside the Capitol, she said, are veterans battling terminal cancers. They “chose to literally spend the last days of their lives sitting here,” Turner said in tears.

Some had traveled long distances advocating for change. Dan Pierce, a 29-year-old military family member, came from South Carolina after watching his uncle “have to fight to get every treatment he needed after serving.”

“I’ve lost too many people to this,” Pierce added. “We have to give veterans what they need and deserve. Their life depends on it. »

Around him, a dozen people sat in a circle, some stationed there for hours. Local support had poured in, including cases of bottled water and food. Chef José Andrés had been sending hot meals twice a day. There was a FaceTime call with President Biden, whose son died after serving near the burns. But the situation still looked “devastating,” said Matthew Schwartzman, director of legislation and military policy for the Reserve Organization of America.

“What really comes back is that this bill should have been signed into law by now,” he said. “No one should have to be here to see this bill through.”


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