WASHINGTON — Jen Burch, 35, a retired staff sergeant in the Air Force, looks strong and healthy from the outside. She says that inside, however, she’s suffering from ailments that she believes are related to her service during the Afghanistan war more than a decade ago.
While they were in Kandahar, Burch and her fellow service members were exposed to “burn pits, incinerators and poo ponds,” she said. When she left, she battled pneumonia and bronchitis. And in the years since then, she has been “in and out of ERs” and has struggled with intense migraine headaches and shortness of breath whenever she climbs a flight of stairs.
“I actually ended up trying to take my life because I just can’t handle it anymore. I just go crazy in my head,” Burch said at a rally Monday outside the U.S. Capitol.
Burch, a Washington native, is one of dozens of military veterans who spent the weekend protesting Republicans' blockade of a bill that would provide lifesaving benefits for veterans exposed to so-called burn pits and other toxic phenomena.
The veterans camped out on the steps outside the Senate all weekend, braving the heat, the humidity and occasional thunderstorms and sleeping on the hard concrete stairs. Burch said she wanted to camp there, too, but she began feeling intense pain.
The protest by 60 veterans groups — along with comedian Jon Stewart — has put Senate Republicans on the defensive as they’ve struggled for days to explain why they are holding up legislation that would provide much-needed health care for millions of veterans exposed to things like burn pit smoke, Agent Orange and radiation.
At times, lawmakers and officials, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, joined the protesters to urge the Senate to pass the PACT Act. President Joe Biden, isolating after another positive Covid test, reached out to the vets by videoconference.
Burch said in an interview: “If there is one group that’s not going to give up, it’s us. We have fought tougher battles. We’ve had bloodshed. This is getting over an obstacle because we refuse to be defeated.”
As they told their stories Monday, veterans held signs that read “Senators are lying while vets are dying. Pass the #PACTAct” and “Burn Pits Kill. Delaying the PACT Act Kills. Republicans Delayed and Killed War Veterans.”
Another sign listed the names of all of the Republicans who had joined Democrats in passing the PACT Act in June and then reversed course last week and filibustered the bill: “25 Republicans are killing vets and the PACT Act.” (The bill needs to be passed by the Senate again because of a minor technical change made by the House.)
“As far as I can see, it passed 84 to 14, and then 25 Republicans switched their vote. So to me, that’s the problem,” Stewart told NBC News outside the Capitol. “Switched it without an explanation, switched it without pointing to the bill and saying what was inserted. … Switched it without pointing to the bill and saying where the pork was. … They just keep going, ‘It’s a budget gimmick.’”
Stewart has reserved special ire for Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who has argued that he is worried that some of the $280 billion in spending over 10 years would be used for other Democratic priorities. Democrats and veterans groups have rejected the argument and accused 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 took a jab at Stewart, the former “Daily Show” host, calling him a “pseudo-celebrity.” Toomey is demanding a vote on his amendment to add stricter rules for how the money would be spent.
“This is the oldest trick in Washington,” Toomey said. “People take a sympathetic group of Americans — and it could be children with an illness, it could be victims of crime, it could be veterans who’ve been exposed to toxic chemicals — craft a bill to address their problems and then sneak in something completely unrelated that they know could never pass on its own and dare Republicans to do anything about it, because they know they’ll unleash their allies in the media and maybe a pseudo-celebrity to make up false accusations to try to get us to just swallow what shouldn’t be there. That’s what’s happening here.”
Asked whether he was offended that Toomey had called him a pseudo-celebrity, Stewart took the criticism in stride: “That’s the one thing I’ve agreed with throughout this whole process.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., hopes to bring the PACT Act back to the floor as early as Tuesday, saying veterans “shouldn’t have to fight a second war here at home just to get the health care benefits they rightfully deserve.” And Republicans — facing extraordinary pressure from the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Wounded Warrior Project and other groups — are signaling that they will be on board this time.
“Yeah, it’ll pass this week,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday.
Don Eggert, 56, an Iraq war vet 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 toward veterans," Eggert said in an interview. "He'll talk about how he supports veterans and how he honors our service, but when it comes to budget time, he's not there to support us.
Republicans "should back down today," he said.
Another Iraq war veteran, James Powers, 37, of Canton, Ohio, has been advocating for assistance for years.
"We're not leaving until this bill passes," Powers, who was exposed to burn pits in Iraq, told his fellow protesters. "There are veterans standing here right now pushing through the pain — physical and emotional — that they've suffered from this."
Wes Moore, an Afghanistan war vet who is the Democratic nominee for governor of Maryland, was among those showing support for the veterans at the Capitol on Monday.
"There's over 6,000 Marylanders who are on the burn pit registry, so this is a very personal issue for folks in the state of Maryland. And also it's very personal because I'm a combat veteran," Moore, a former Army captain, told NBC News.
"So when we come and we see those promises not being kept, it's important that every single American step up and make our voices heard and make sure that those promises are being kept."
CORRECTION (Aug. 2, 2022, 12:13 p.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the military branch Wes Moore served in. He was a captain in the U.S. Army, not the Air Force.