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After high-profile pushback, Senate passes help for veterans exposed to toxins


The U.S. Senate has given final approval to improved health care and disability benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxins while on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's called the PACT Act is now waiting for President Biden's signature, but it was almost derailed by last-minute objections from Republicans. Then came some pretty high-profile pushback. NPR's H.J. Mai reports.

H J MAI, BYLINE: Ahead of a second Senate vote within a week, roughly 40 military veterans and their supporters set up camp in the shadows of the U.S. Capitol. Among them was comedian and activist Jon Stewart. Stewart was dressed in dark jeans with a black T-shirt and a USO baseball cap. And he was still upset about last week's vote.

JON STEWART: They pulled an April Fool's prank on America's war fighters.

MAI: The former "Daily Show" host has become the most prominent supporter of the PACT Act. The bill expands health care benefits to veterans exposed to toxic chemicals, primarily through so-called burn pits, by classifying cancers and some respiratory illnesses as byproducts of toxic exposure, thereby removing the burden of proof for veterans seeking medical care.

STEWART: These folks have been fighting this 15 years. They've lost friends and family to this, toxic exposures. And 25 Republicans flipped their vote for no discernible reason.

MAI: Last week's vote was surprising, as only a month earlier, the same Republicans supported the measure. The bill represents one of the largest expansions of veterans benefits and could affect as many as 3.5 million veterans. Over the past several days, Stewart has been on a media blitz to call out those 25 Republican senators, sometimes in very colorful language. But his main message to Congress remains the same - stop playing games with the life of veterans.

STEWART: There's always money for war and never money for the veteran. If you're going to start a 20-year war and you're going to spend $6 trillion on it, wouldn't you throw, like, a contingency fund behind that for the consequences that will inevitably come?

MAI: The men and women facing those consequences in the form of health problems are U.S. service members who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as prior wars. One of them is retired Army captain Le Roy Torres. He was deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2008. He was stationed at Camp Anaconda, where he was exposed to toxins from burn pits. When he came home, he wasn't the same man anymore, says his wife, Rosie.

ROSIE TORRES: Here was this strong man who fulfilled his childhood dreams of being a state trooper and being an Army captain. And just to see all that stripped away from him the way it was, it just really put this heartache in my heart.

MAI: And as his health further deteriorated, so did his will to live.

TORRES: He almost took his life a few years ago, put a shotgun to his mouth, and I had to fight him to pull that out of his hand.

MAI: With last night's passage of the bill, Rosie Torres' fight for adequate health care access for her husband has finally ended. H.J. Mai, NPR News.


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