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Veterans call rejection of toxic-exposure bill ‘a slap in the face’

Published by María Luisa Paúl

(Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

James Powers still recoils when he thinks about the smell that hung over his base while serving in Iraq — a putrid mix of burning plastic and human waste.

The former soldier recalls days when the smoke from the burn pits made it too hazardous for helicopters to fly overhead. While some of his infantrymen never made it out of the war zone, others who did later fell ill from the toxic fumes they inhaled daily, he said.

Powers now fears a similar fate: “It’s just a matter of time until it happens to me,” he told The Washington Post.

He was among the veterans, military family members and advocates staged on the Capitol steps for the fourth night on Sunday, pledging to remain until Congress passes a bill that covers health care for those exposed to toxins while serving in uniform. Earlier that day, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs warned that a new Republican proposal could leave the agency “rationing” veterans’ health care. GOP lawmakers blocked the aid from passing last week in what comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime veterans advocate, blasted as “a disgrace.”

“We fought for this country freely, and we expect now that people will fight for us and fight for our basic health care,” said Samantha Turner, an Army veteran who served near burn pits in Kuwait. Turner, who has sleep apnea, now uses a machine to breathe at night.

“We’re not political pawns,” she added.

Though exposure to burn pits is known to cause cancers, sleep apnea and other respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological conditions, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s top Republican said about 70 percent of all disability claims related to the toxins are denied because of service members’ inability to prove a link between their conditions and the hazardous substances. For years, activists had been fighting for an expansion in veterans’ health care coverage that would remove that burden-of-proof requirement — resulting in a bill known as the Pact Act.

The legislation was welcomed by veterans and their loved ones. And it was poised to pass after sailing through the Senate by an 84-to-14 vote in June....

Read full article on Washington Post.


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