06.16.22

Statement On Passage Of The PACT Act

The passage of The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022, or PACT Act, is an example of what can happen when the Congress puts aside partisanship and comes together for the good of the country, and importantly, our veterans.

Each of us, in every state and in every Congressional district across the country, has a friend, a neighbor, or a constituent, a veteran or an active duty servicemember, who has become sick or died from exposure to toxics while serving in the military. And for too many of those people, recognition of the connection between their illnesses and toxic exposures came too late.

Early in my time in the Senate, I heard from Vietnam veterans who were sickened by exposure to herbicides such as Agent Orange. Too many of these veterans died before Congress pushed the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize and treat their illnesses, or compensate them for the disability caused by our own government’s use of such a toxic substance throughout Vietnam and in other parts of Southeast Asia.

I hoped we would have learned from our mistakes there. I hoped we would learn from the veterans and civilians who suffered from radiation exposure when we tested the atomic bomb. I hoped we would learn from the veterans who came home from the first Gulf War with unexplained illnesses.

But just a few years ago, I watched my dear friend, Brigadier General Mike Heston, ravaged by pancreatic cancer, fight for the VA and the Department of Defense to acknowledge that his cancer was caused by exposure to the burn pits that had been used during his tours in Afghanistan.

Mike served as a Vermont State Trooper for 26 years, and for 33 years in the military, including in the Marine Corps Reserve and the Vermont National Guard. He served his state and his country without question. When he got sick, he should not have had to spend his precious remaining time fighting for the government to acknowledge what caused his illness.

But Mike did fight. Mike fought to ensure that his family, his two wonderful children, Kelsey and Keegan, would be cared for if he succumbed to his illness. He, and his wife, June, also fought to make sure that other veterans would not have to endure what they did, that they might get an earlier diagnosis, that they might not have to spend any of their precious moments fighting for the benefits they earned.

After Mike passed away in 2018, June continued and expanded the fight. Joining her in Vermont were Staff Sergeant Wesley Black, who died last year of colon cancer at the age of 36, leaving behind his wife Laura and son Ronan; Pat Cram, widow of Sergeant Major Mike Cram, who died of prostate cancer at the age of 47; and many others who through their experience with friends or loved ones were determined to make sure that things would be better for those who followed.

As we stand here today prepared to enact one of the most sweeping packages of veterans benefits and health care measures in modern history, I am thinking of Mike and June, of Kelsey and Keegan, of Mike and Pat, and of Wesley and Laura and Ronan. And I know that each Senator voting yes today is thinking of people in their states and districts who are sick or who have died as a result of exposure to toxics while serving our country.

Their stories are meaningful, and they themselves ensured that their sacrifice is meaningful too. And I hope that this time we will learn from our experiences with toxic substances and hold the Department of Defense to a higher standard in the future.

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