Comment: Vets won health care battle; still fight for respect

While ultimately successful, veterans and supporters shouldn’t have had to fight the Senate for recognition.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

The activists ultimately got what they came for, but having to plead for it was a reminder of the disrespect that lawmakers so often have for the people who employ them.

On Tuesday, the veterans, military family members and their supporters were on their sixth day outside the Capitol. They were clustered under a few trees in the blessed shade just beyond the Capitol’s east plaza on a morning that was already sweltering. They were there to shame the Senate into passing the PACT Act, which extends health-care benefits to veterans who were exposed to toxins from the enormous pits in which the military regularly disposed of waste. Those burning garbage dumps have been linked to cancers, sleep apnea, and other respiratory and neurological ailments. Indeed, President Biden has noted that his son Beau served overseas near such a site and later died of a brain tumor. And so it was not surprising to see an activist holding a cardboard sign shaped like a tombstone that bore the words, “the troops.” Another sign warned: “vets are dying.”

A lot of Americans come to Capitol Hill to make a case for their interests or to raise awareness about looming emergencies. But these activists faced particularly galling circumstances. The Senate had passed the PACT Act back in June with an 84-14 vote, but it had been changed somewhat in the House; so last week the Senate had to vote again, and the second time around the dizzying carousel that is the legislature, the vote was 55-42. This might still seem like a win for veterans, but basic math isn’t so basic in the Senate because of the filibuster, which requires 60 votes before a bill turns into a law. The legislation stalled and these determined citizens from Virginia and North Carolina and New York were sweating it out on the grass trying to get senators to give veterans something more tangible than a mere “thanks” for their service.

On Tuesday night, after much talking and milling about, the Senate finally voted. And the PACT Act passed with a vote of 86-11.

Victory came after many deaths and much testimony about those deaths. It came after celebrity activist Jon Stewart bellowed profanities into media microphones about cruel and cowardly senators. All of the protesters had something to say but Stewart was like the sun; his fame an irresistible gravitational force, his vulgarity in the name of veterans steeped in righteousness. It came after the appalling insult to men and women who thought they’d come to their nation’s Capitol to celebrate long-awaited health care access for veterans only to have the party halted. It came after sleepless nights and a deluge.

“It was biblical.” That’s how Danielle Dombrowski, 35, described the downpour in which she sat vigil outside the Capitol on Monday night. She had come to Washington from her home near Luray, Va., because hers is a military family going back to World War I, and most recently her brother Michael served in Afghanistan. Dombrowski spent her Tuesday morning standing alongside Natalia Kempthorne-Curiel, 18, who was from New York City and was channeling her outrage into sarcasm with a sign aimed at the senators who had stalled the PACT Act: “Thank you for your service: just kidding.”

In our democracy, there’s every reason to be proud of the people’s ability to protest and have their demands met. But in the process of making their voices heard on this subject, there have been constant reminders of just how loathe those in power are to listening to voices other than their own. As the bill — and amendments — were considered on the Senate floor, Rand Paul, R-Ky., explained how he wanted to pay for the veteran’s health care by calling a 10-year moratorium on foreign aid distributed by USAID. Then he rattled off a list of the aid group’s expenditures that, based on the snarling disgust in his tone, he deemed offensively wasteful: encouraging tourism in Tunisia, teaching Korean students about climate change and encouraging millions of Filipinos to go to school. His colleagues did not approve Paul’s amendment.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., complained that he’d been the victim of a long-standing Washington “trick” in which his opponents took a “sympathetic group of people,” in this case veterans, crafted a bill to address their needs and then tacked on unrelated, terrible extras and then dared him to oppose it. He complained that he’d been maligned by a “pseudo celebrity.” Toomey, it seemed, had gotten his feelings hurt in the proceedings. He’d been insulted and this was terrible. The senator was pained.

Toomey, of course, was detailing these affronts in the cool comfort of the Senate. The activists had been outside for days in the heat and rain. They were relegated to patches of grass and reminded by the U.S. Capitol police to stay out of the broad driveway. As one veteran quipped, the country’s soldiers are called upon to defend all manner of ground at home and abroad, but here at the Capitol where they’d come to plead their case for health care, they weren’t allowed on the sidewalk.

They dutifully stayed on the grass. In the sun. And as they held their handmade signs, a shiny black sedan, its tinted windows sealed tight against the heat, zipped down Constitution Avenue flanked by the vroom-vroom-vroom of law enforcement on motorcycles. It was a baby motorcade, part of the city’s background hum, and a reminder that the men and women who work for The People so often don’t actually have to deal with them.

On Monday night, when President Biden announced that U.S. military forces had killed 9/11 co-conspirator Ayman al-Zawahiri, there were proclamations of support from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, in which they praised American intelligence and military, just after they’d voted to halt the passage of the PACT Act. There were procedural issues and budgeting issues and, well, it’s complicated. It’s politics. What does it mean to be proud and supportive of the military? What does it mean to thank these men and women for their service?

The people regularly come to Washington to plead their case. And sometimes they find victory. Respect can be more elusive.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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