WASHINGTON — It was an emotional day on Capitol Hill as veterans, advocates, veteran families, legislators, and comedian activist Jon Stewart blasted senators who blocked legislation that would help post-9/11 veterans suffering from illnesses related to deployment.
The disappointment was a shock to many as activists were at the Capitol planning to celebrate the passage of the bill sometime this week.
In June, the U.S. Senate comfortably passed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, better known as the PACT Act, with support from both sides of the aisle. The House also passed the legislation by a wide margin however Wednesday, the bill went back to the Senate after the House made minor changes.
This time around, 42 senators, including 41 Republicans, voted against the legislation. Nineteen of them had voted in favor of the bill in June, including Senator Rick Scott, R-Florida.
Scott's office sent 10 Tampa Bay this statement:
“Senator Rick Scott was proud to support the passage of this important bill in the Senate previously and will support its final passage soon. Unfortunately, Democrats caused an unnecessary delay of this important bill’s passage by inserting a budget gimmick in the text that warranted further discussion. Senator Scott is working with his colleagues to ensure this is resolved quickly so we can provide our nation’s veterans the care they need.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a fellow Republican, voted in favor of the legislation in June and again the second time around in July. His office sent this statement: "It has already taken far too long, but we’re going to get this passed. I’m not going to give up on our veterans."
You can watch the news conference and rally at the Capitol held Thursday morning, including remarks by Stewart at the end.
WARNING: Offensive language is used in the video.
The legislation adds 23 toxic and burn pit exposure conditions to the Department of Veterans Affairs database while expanding care for post 9/11 veterans who were exposed to burn pits.
What are burn pits?
Burn pits were burning holes in the ground used in Iraq and Afghanistan as a way to eliminate waste like chemicals, ammunition, oil and other items they needed to get rid of. Many veterans have described it as a burning hole of toxic waste.
Through his relationships with veterans, Stewart learned some pits took up 10 acres and were right next to the base where soldiers would breathe in the toxins.
"Black thick smoke, toxic," Stewart said. "It burnt plastic, trash, and body parts, and biomedical waste, and ammunition, and whatever nasty thing they needed to get rid of."
When heroes returned home
In most instances, the impact of inhaling toxic burn pits showed up months or years after veterans returned home.
In 2018, Lauren Price, a veteran from New Port Richey, Florida, told 10 Tampa Bay burn pits were the least of their worries while serving, adding, "We were there during the worst," Price said. "It was the most fatalities in Iraq. We were losing a truck with five people every single week out of our brigade. You figured you’d get blown up.”
She made it back to Florida, however, within months of coming home, Price noticed she was having respiratory problems and would get winded very easily. During that 2018 interview with 10 Tampa Bay, Lauren Price said, "I had no idea that the thing I would come home to deal with would be literally I can’t breathe.”