Veterans camped out on the steps of the Capitol after the GOP blocked the fire pit bill

WASHINGTON — Jen Burch, 35, a retired Air Force staff sergeant, looks strong and healthy on the outside. She says that on the inside, however, she suffers from ailments she says are linked to her service in the war in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.

While in Kandahar, Burch and her military colleagues were exposed to “burning pits, incinerators and poo ponds,” she said. When she left, she battled pneumonia and bronchitis. And in the years since, she’s been ‘in and out of the ER’ and struggled with intense migraines and shortness of breath every time she climbs stairs.

“I actually ended up trying to kill myself because I can’t take it anymore. I’m just going crazy in my head,” Burch said at a Monday rally outside the U.S. Capitol.

Jon Stewart at a rally calling on the Senate to pass the PACT Act on August 1, 2022.Frank Thorp V/NBC News

Burch, a Washington native, is one of dozens of veterans who spent the weekend protesting Republicans’ blocking of a bill that would provide vital benefits to veterans exposed to so- saying hotbeds of combustion and other toxic phenomena.

Veterans camped on the steps outside the Senate all weekend, braving the heat, humidity and occasional thunderstorms and sleeping on the hard concrete stairs. Burch said she also wanted to camp there, but she began to feel severe pain.

The protest by 60 veterans groups – complete with comedian Jon Stewart – has put Senate Republicans on the defensive as they struggled for days to explain why they are delaying legislation that would provide much-needed health care to millions of veterans exposed to things like fire pit smoke, agent orange and radiation.

At times, lawmakers and officials, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, have joined protesters in urging the Senate to pass the PACT Act. President Joe Biden, isolated after another positive Covid test, contacted vets by videoconference.

Burch said in an interview, “If there’s one band that’s not going to give up, it’s us. We fought harder battles. We had a bloodbath. It is overcoming an obstacle because we refuse to be defeated.

As they told their stories on Monday, veterans held signs that read, “Senators lie while veterans die.” Pass the #PACTAct” and “Burn Pits Kill. Delaying the PACT law kills. Republicans delayed and killed veterans.

Another panel listed the names of all Republicans who joined Democrats in passing the PACT Act in June, then turned course last week and obstructed the bill: “25 Republicans Kill Vets and PACT Act “. (The bill must pass the Senate again due to a minor technical amendment made by the House.)

“As far as I know, it went from 84 to 14, and then 25 Republicans reversed their vote. So for me, that’s the problem,” Stewart told NBC News outside the Capitol. without explanation, I changed it without pointing the bill and saying what was inserted….I changed it without pointing the bill and saying where the pig was….They just go on, ‘It’s a budget gimmick. ‘ »

Stewart reserved particular ire for Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who argued he feared some of the $280 billion in 10-year spending would be used for other Democratic priorities. Democrats and veterans groups have dismissed the argument and accused the GOP of blocking the bill in retaliation for the massive climate and economic deal Democrats reached last week.

Toomey suggested on CNN on Sunday that Democrats were using veterans as political props and took a swipe at former “Daily Show” host Stewart, calling him a “pseudo-celebrity.” Toomey is asking for a vote on his amendment to add stricter rules on how the money would be spent.

“It’s the oldest thing in Washington,” Toomey said. “People take a group of sympathetic Americans – and they can be sick children, victims of crime, veterans who have been exposed to toxic chemicals – come up with a bill to solve their issues and then sneak in something completely unrelated that they know they could never pass on to each other and dare the Republicans to do anything about it because they know they’ll let down on their allies in the media and can -being a pseudo-celebrity to make up false accusations to try and get us to just swallow what shouldn’t be there. That’s what’s going on here.

Asked if he was offended that Toomey called him a pseudo-celebrity, Stewart accepted the criticism bluntly: “It’s the one thing I’ve agreed with throughout this process.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., hopes to bring the PACT Act back on the agenda as soon as Tuesday, saying veterans “shouldn’t have to fight a second war here at home just to get the health care benefits they rightly deserve”. deserve.” And Republicans — facing extraordinary pressure from the American Legion, veterans of foreign wars, the Wounded Warrior Project and other groups — signal they will be on board this time.

“Yeah, it’s going to pass this week,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, said Monday.

Don Eggert, 56, an Iraq War veteran from Madison, Wisconsin, singled out his home state Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican, in a speech at Monday’s rally.

“He has this kind of hypocrisy towards veterans,” Eggert said in an interview. “He will talk about how he supports veterans and how he honors our service, but when it comes to the budget, he’s not there to support us.

Republicans “should back down today,” he said.

Another Iraq War veteran, James Powers, 37, of Canton, Ohio, said he tried to meet Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in Cleveland last week, but was repressed. He had a meeting with Portman staff in Washington, but it turned into a verbal altercation after he used profanity, he said.

“We’re not leaving until this bill is passed,” Powers, who has been exposed to burns in Iraq, told fellow protesters. “There are veterans standing here right now, pushing through the pain – physical and emotional – that they’ve gone through because of this.”

Wes Moore, an Afghanistan war veteran who is the Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, was among those who showed support for veterans on Capitol Hill Monday.

“There are over 6,000 Marylanders on the Burning Hearth Registry, so it’s a very personal issue for people in the state of Maryland. And it’s also very personal because I’m a combat veteran,” said Moore, a former Air Force captain. told NBC News.

“So when we come in and see those promises not being kept, it’s important for every American to step up and raise their voices and make sure those promises are kept.”

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