Every Wisconsin Republican voted against the original bill, while Sen. Tammy Baldwin ensured coverage extends to “K2” vets who served at a former Soviet base shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the final vote to pass the bill, with Sen. Ron Johnson voting yes. His no vote was on a procedural motion to send the bill to a final vote.]
The US Senate gave final approval Thursday morning to legislation that will remove a bureaucratic barrier for veterans seeking care for respiratory problems likely caused by exposure to burn pits while serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act overcame an important procedural vote Wednesday afternoon with 76 votes, more than enough to overcome any filibuster and receive a final vote that will send it to President Joe Biden for his signature. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson was among the 23 senators who voted no on that motion, but Johnson then supported the final vote to pass the bill, 85-14.
The PACT Act will establish a presumption that factors during a veteran’s service are connected to 23 different respiratory illnesses and cancers related to the smoke from burn pits—which were heavily used in war zones to dispose of household and human waste and toxic substances like paint and metals.
The bill will expand health care coverage for more than 3.5 million veterans exposed to toxins while serving.
“This is an issue that we have heard a lot about over the years, especially veterans who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and other locations,” Wisconsin’s Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin told UpNorthNews. “This also includes the veterans who served in Uzbekistan and had a different set of exposures. We would often hear from those veterans, exasperated that the policy we’re about to put into effect didn’t exist before.”
Baldwin led a drive for the measure to include those who served at the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base (K2) in Uzbekistan shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack of 2001, as American and allied forces began operations in northern Afghanistan.
Baldwin and others were incredulous that the Veterans Administration was forcing veterans to prove their respiratory issues were service related—repeating the doubts and denials that plagued veterans exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam and Cambodia.
“The Pentagon has known for years that our troops were exposed to cancer-causing toxins while serving in Uzbekistan and it’s simply wrong for the VA to deny them health care and disability benefits,” Baldwin said.
As many as 15,000 service members were deployed to the K2 Air Base and were exposed to multiple cancer-causing toxic chemicals and radiological hazards from pits used to burn all manner of material in the absence of standard landfills.
Baldwin said the legislation also invests in research to improve medical treatments and better understand the links between exposure and illness.
“I believe that we need to keep our promises we make when people take their oath and put on the uniform and serve our country,” Baldwin said.
“The K2 Veterans Care Act is critically important to those veterans who volunteered to serve their country and trusted they would be cared for if they were fortunate enough to return from battle or complete their service obligations,” said Leroy Miller, a K2 veteran from Wisconsin quoted in a release from Baldwin. “Many have suffered after being stationed at K2, and are still suffering, and we greatly appreciate the work that Senator Baldwin is doing to make sure we get the targeted health care we need.”
The amended bill also needs what is expected to be a quick final vote in the US House, where it previously passed on a bipartisan 256-174 vote—with 34 Republicans joining Democrats in approval. But all five of Wisconsin’s Republican members—Tom Tiffany, Bryan Steil, Mike Gallagher, Glenn Grothman, and Scott Fitzgerald—voted against the veterans assistance at that time.
Biden believes exposure to burn pits may have contributed to the brain cancer that claimed the life of his son Beau. Former late night host Jon Stewart has also been an aggressive champion of the bill. CBS News profiled a US Marine veteran, Kate Hendricks Thompson, last November about her three-year battle with the Veterans Administration over her claims for the breast cancer she believes was caused by exposure to burns pits while serving in Iraq. She died in April, leaving behind a 7-year-old son.
“Veterans service organizations are solidly in support of this and appropriately saying it’s overdue,” Baldwin said in her UpNorthNews interview. “They also are applauding some additional provisions in the bill that would help the VA speed up its processing of disability claims. Right now, it can take months and months to process these claims. And you don’t want to see this act signed into law, only to have veterans wait months and months to get the answer to their claims. And so this is also key to properly and faithfully serve our veterans.”