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NC’s Republican senators split on bill to help veterans. One should be ashamed.

Charlotte Observer - 8/3/2022

U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis will be the first to tell you that they support our troops. North Carolina, after all, has a significant military presence — we’re home to hundreds of thousands of active service members and veterans, and some of the country’s largest military bases.

But only one of them did the right thing Tuesday, when the Senate voted on bipartisan legislation that would help millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits while serving overseas — the biggest expansion of veterans’ benefits in decades.

The bill, known as the PACT Act, expands care and benefits to veterans diagnosed with cancer, respiratory illness and other ailments as a result of exposure to toxins during their service. Currently, about 70% of these claims are denied because until now, veterans were required to prove their condition is directly linked to burn pit exposure.

Senate Republicans stalled passage of the bill last week, despite overwhelmingly voting for a nearly identical bill in June. The bill had not changed, save for a small technical correction made in the House. When it came up for a vote a third time, however, they reversed course again, ultimately sending the bill to the president’s desk in an 86-11 vote.

Burr, who voted against the bill twice, had a last-minute change of heart and opted to support the PACT Act Tuesday. Tillis, shamefully, opposed the bill on all three occasions.

It’s even more shameful once you consider that the bill is especially meaningful to North Carolina, because it also directly helps veterans and their families who were exposed to toxic chemicals in Camp Lejeune’s drinking water between 1953 and 1987. The toxins led to birth defects, cancer and other adverse health conditions, and those affected have been fighting for reparations for decades.

In fact, large portions of the PACT Act, including the Camp Lejeune section, were crafted by Tillis himself, only for him to vote against it in the end.

Tillis explained in a statement Tuesday night that even though much of the bill’s contents came from his office, he had concerns about “adverse operational and administrative impacts.”

Burr, who will retire from the Senate in January, did not issue a statement explaining why he decided to change his vote.

Virtually every veterans organization supported the PACT Act. One of the strongest advocates for the bill has been comedian Jon Stewart, who joined veterans’ advocates in protesting on Capitol Hill and was present in the Senate gallery for the vote. Many veterans camped out on the steps of the Capitol building for days after last week’s vote, hoping to convince senators to pass the much-needed legislation.

Perhaps that pressure is what helped change Burr’s mind in the end.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little,” Stewart said after Tuesday’s vote. “I hope we learn a lesson.”

Even Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper took the rare step of publicly criticizing Tillis on Twitter last week, saying the senator “talks a lot about supporting veterans, but when they need him he votes no.”

Tillis calls himself a “champion for North Carolina servicemembers and military families,” but our veterans are owed more than just our gratitude and lip service. They deserve to be made whole, especially for the suffering they endured from fighting to serve us. Maybe Tillis ought to be reminded that, as a member of Congress, a significant portion of his health care is subsidized by taxpayers, including the same veterans he chose not to protect.

What will Tillis say when he returns to North Carolina and has to explain to veterans at Fort Bragg why he voted against them? What will he tell them if he chooses to run for office again, and asks them for their vote?

We’re grateful that, in the end, Burr made the right decision. Perhaps Tillis, who will continue to represent North Carolina for at least another four years, could learn a thing or two from his colleague.

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