Veterans have camped on the steps of the Capitol after the GOP blocked the burning pit bill

WASHINGTON — Jen Burch, 35, a retired Air Force staff sergeant, looks strong and healthy on the outside. She says she suffers internally from ailments she believes were related to her service during the Afghan war more than a decade ago.

While in Kandahar, Burch and her colleagues were exposed to “burn pits, incinerators and poo ponds,” she said. When she left, she was battling pneumonia and bronchitis. And in the years since, she’s been “in and out of emergency rooms,” struggling with intense migraine headaches and shortness of breath climbing a flight of stairs.

“In the end I actually tried to kill myself because I just can’t handle it anymore. I’m just going crazy in the head,” Burch said at a rally outside the US Capitol on Monday.

Image: Jon Stewart during a rally to urge the Senate to pass the pact on August 1, 2022.
Jon Stewart during a rally to urge the Senate to pass the PACT bill on August 1, 2022.Frank Thorp V / NBC News

Burch, a Washington native, is one of dozens of military veterans who have spent the weekend protesting the Republican blockade of a bill that would provide life-saving benefits for veterans exposed to so-called burn pits and other toxic phenomena.

The veterans camped on the Senate steps all weekend, braving the heat, humidity and occasional thunderstorms, and sleeping on the hard concrete steps. Burch said she wanted to camp there too, but she was beginning to feel severe pain.

The protest by 60 veterans’ groups — along with comedian Jon Stewart — has put Senate Republicans on the defensive as they have struggled for days to explain why they are stopping legislation that urgently needs millions of veterans exposed to these things would provide needed health care such as smoke from the fire pit, Agent Orange and radiation.


Occasionally, lawmakers and officials, including Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, have joined the protesters to urge the Senate to pass the PACT bill. President Joe Biden, who is isolating after another positive Covid test, addressed the vets via video conference.

Burch said in an interview: “If there’s one group that doesn’t give up, it’s us. We’ve fought tougher battles. We had bloodshed. This means overcoming an obstacle because we refuse to be defeated.”

As they shared their stories Monday, veterans held signs that read, “Senators lie while vets die.” Pass the #PACTAct” and “Burn Pits Kill. Delay in PACT act kills. Republican War Veterans Belated and Killed.”

Another sign listed the names of all the Republicans who joined the Democrats in passing the PACT law in June and then reversed course last week and filibustered the law: “25 Republicans are killing vets and the PACT law. (The bill must go through the Senate again due to a minor technical change in the House of Representatives.)

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

Stewart has drawn particular anger towards Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who has argued he is concerned that some of the $280 billion spent over 10 years is going to other Democratic priorities. Democrats and veterans’ groups have dismissed the argument, accusing the GOP of blocking the bill in retaliation for the massive climate and economic deal Democrats struck last week.

Toomey suggested Sunday on CNN that Democrats were using the veterans as political props, and smacked Stewart, the former Daily Show host, by calling him a “pseudo-celebrity.” Toomey calls for a vote on his amendment to add stricter rules on how the money is used.

“It’s the oldest trick in Washington,” Toomey said. “People take a sympathetic group of Americans — and it could be kids with an illness, it could be victims of crime, it could be veterans who have been exposed to toxic chemicals — create a bill to address their problems and then sneak out something totally independent of knowing they could never pass it on alone and Republicans dare to do something about it because they know they will unleash their media allies and maybe a pseudo-celebrity to fabricate false allegations to try to make us right swallow what shouldn’t be there. That happens here.”

Asked if he was offended that Toomey called him a pseudo-celebrity, Stewart took the criticism in stride: “That’s the only thing I agreed to throughout the process.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., hopes to get the PACT bill back on track as early as Tuesday, saying veterans “shouldn’t have to fight a second war here at home just to see the achievements of the to receive the health care they rightfully deserve.” And Republicans — who are facing extraordinary pressure from the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Wounded Warrior Project and other groups — are signaling they will be on board this time.

“Yes, it will 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’ll talk about how he supports veterans and how he honors our ministry, but when it comes to budget time, he’s not there to support us.

Republicans “should back out today,” he said.

Another Iraq war veteran, James Powers, 37, of Canton, Ohio, said he tried to meet with Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, in Cleveland last week but was turned away. He had a meeting with Portman’s associates in Washington, but it escalated into a verbal altercation after he used profanity, he said.

“We’re not going until this law is passed,” Powers, who was subjected to burn pits in Iraq, told his comrades-in-arms. “Here are veterans right now who are going through the pain – physically and emotionally – they have endured as a result.”

Wes Moore, an Afghan war veteran and Democratic candidate for governor of Maryland, was among those who showed their support for the veterans at the Capitol Monday.

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

“So when we come and see those promises not being kept, it’s important for every single American to step up and make their voices heard and make sure those promises are kept.” Veterans have camped on the steps of the Capitol after the GOP blocked the burning pit bill

Fry Electronics Team

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