You may have seen former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart on July 28 unleashing a furious rebuke of U.S. Senate Republicans for not voting for a bill that would expand health care eligibility for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals while in service.
“So ain’t this a b****?” Stewart said on live television while standing in front of the U.S. Capitol alongside military veterans. “America’s heroes, who fought our wars, outside sweating their asses off, with oxygen battling all kinds of ailments while these motherf***ers sit in the air conditioning walled off from any of it,” Stewart said, gesturing toward the U.S. Senate chamber. “They don’t have to hear it. They don’t have to see it. They don’t have to understand that these are human beings. Did you get it yet?”
After nine minutes, Stewart concluded with “And if this is ‘America First’ then America is F****d.”
Stewart had been advocating for the U.S. Senate to pass the The Honoring our PACT Act to provide for 3.5 million veterans from all eras who continue to be denied Veterans Affairs health care and disability benefits. PACT stands for “Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins.”
The bill passed the Senate 84-14 on June 16. After the U.S. House of Representatives passed a slightly modified version of the PACT Act, the Senate had to vote on it again. This time, 25 Republican Senators switched their vote of support to opposition on July 27. The final vote was 55-42, five votes short of the 60 votes required to invoke cloture on the bill.
Stewart wasn’t the only one angry.
Jewish War Veterans (JWV), an organization dedicated to be the voice of Jewish uniformed service members and veterans in the United States, was quite dismayed by the Senate Republicans opposition to the PACT Act.
“The Senate’s failure to advance the PACT Act is a betrayal to veterans exposed to toxins,” Jewish War Veterans National Executive Director Ken Greenberg told the Journal. “The bill did not change and yet 25 Senators switched their vote. Veterans’ lives are at stake and the longer we wait, the more veterans we lose,” said Greenberg.
Jewish War Veterans was founded in 1896 by Civil War veterans. In 1958 they founded the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington, D.C.
“The JWV defends the rights and benefits of all service members and veterans, fights antisemitism, and supports the State of Israel,” their mission statement reads.
The PACT Act would end the arduous process many veterans had to endure to prove to the VA that their ailments had indeed come from their military service.
The PACT Act would end the arduous process many veterans had to endure to prove to the VA that their ailments had indeed come from their military service. Too often, veterans who were exposed to burn pits— often human waste pits in the field that are burned in the open air with fuel — suffer for the rest of their lives with an array of sicknesses from being in close proximity to the toxic fumes.
During the Vietnam War, the troops were exposed to Agent Orange — a deforestation chemical. In Operation Desert Storm, the troops were surrounded by toxic fumes from oil field fires. In both instances, veterans came back with loads of health problems that took many years for the Department of Defense to even recognize as a matter of policy to address.
These days, the burn pits are most often being fueled by aviation gasoline — otherwise known as jet fuel. When burned out in the open with other highly-volatile chemicals, the burn pit fumes can cause the troops a lifetime of health issues.
Dr. Marsha Schjolberg, a retired Captain in the United States Navy, with 28 years of service, is Commander of Jewish War Veterans Post 385 in San Diego.
“Toxic exposure from burn pits to Agent Orange and other chemicals touches so many in the military and veteran community.” CAPT Schjolberg told The Journal. CAPT Schjolberg also served in Operation: Desert Storm, Operation: Desert Shield and Operation: Iraqi Freedom. “Delaying action on the PACT Act, breaks the promise to take care of veterans and servicemembers when they return home. They fulfilled their oath; Congress it’s your time now to act and pass the PACT Act,” said CAPT Schjolberg.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Lukoff, United States Army (ret.) explained to The Journal why so many veterans are frustrated by the Senate Republicans voting down the PACT Act.
“This is something that we are doing to ourselves, and because we are doing it to ourselves, we have suffered the consequences of it,” Lukoff said. He enlisted in 1968 and over the next 29 years, would serve in Vietnam, serve as a Judge Advocate and serve in Operation Desert Storm. “This is not a mystery, this is reality, and people are dying every day. If you put it in a political context, nobody cares. But these people have put their lives on the line, and we owe them.”
U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D), California’s junior senator, who voted to support The PACT Act, also expressed frustration over the failed vote.
“It’s unconscionable that weeks after voting to support the PACT Act, Senate Republicans are now blocking the health care that veterans have earned through their service to our nation,” Senator Padilla told the Journal in a statement. “Democrats reached a historic deal to lower prescription drug costs and invest in climate action, and Republicans responded by taking sick veterans hostage for political games. I can only hope they search their consciences and find the courage to do what’s right for veterans.”
Jewish War Veterans told The Journal that the next step to addressing this issue is to urge Americans to contact the 41 GOP Senators who voted against the PACT Act to demand their support for immediate action to pass the bill.
“Jewish War Veterans advocacy makes a difference,” the organization said in a statement. “Further delays could mean disaster for this comprehensive package of benefits and expanded VA services.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: On August 2, the U.S. Senate passed S.3373, the Honoring Our PACT Act by a vote of 86-11.
Not voting: Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)
The bill is expected to be signed into law by President Biden.