Sunday, August 14, 2022
Aug. 14, 2022

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Schram: Veterans played as political pawns


It was 4 in the afternoon on March 10, 1991, when the first planned explosion of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons went off at the U.S. weapons depot in Khamisiyah, Iraq, and the first gray-white smoke cloud that would come to be called The Plume wafted skyward and drifted over the troops.

There would be many blasts that day.

Bill Florey, a young and proud-to-serve E4 Specialist, had just parked his truck after a day’s work.

Francesca Yabraian, who would become his friend and would fight the losing battle to save his life (at a time when it seemed horribly clear the Department of Veterans Affairs wasn’t), was just a student half-a-world away. She was in Dallas on that day.

Pat Toomey was also half-a-world away on March 10, 1991. Pennsylvania’s future Republican senator was all into the rich expectations of his first career (in international currency swap transactions and derivatives). What Toomey couldn’t know was that, in the summer of 2022, he’d be in a position to shake up the hopes and expectations of thousands who served in Iraq with the same pride Bill Florey felt on that 1991 day.

Florey was Yabraian’s friend and colleague when she became concerned about a bump near his right temple that seemed to be growing. His VA doctor said it was an infection and injected penicillin. It kept growing. So she went to the VA with him and told the doctor Florey had to get an MRI that day or they’d have to drag her out! Florey got his MRI. It showed a tumor had penetrated into his brain.

The VA denied Florey benefits for a service-related injury, claiming it was “less likely than not” that his cancer was caused by The Plume from Saddam’s chemical weapons. Then Yabraian contacted me about her friend’s plight. It turned out a VA study showed it was actually TWICE as likely as not that Florey’s cancer came from exposure to Saddam’s exploded chemical warheads.

Bill Florey died on New Year’s Day 2005, before the VA could grant him the benefits he’d earned. And the VA’s bureaucratic rules were that when military personnel die, their unpaid claim for compensation owed dies with them. His story became the beginning of my 2008 book, “Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles.”

Sadly, “Vets Under Siege” told many similar tragic tales. But it also proposed solutions; and other investigations and hearings produced many more. This summer, a new veterans reform bill was being approved with overwhelming bipartisan Senate and House support that assumed all who were in Iraq — and who suffered cancers or other illnesses known to be caused by Iraq’s chemical weapons — would be presumed to have been exposed to plumes from what the military now calls its “burn pits.”

But on Wednesday, 25 Republican senators reversed their earlier “yes” votes and blocked final passage of that veterans’ care reform bill — just weeks after they’d joined Democrats in approving the bill.

Now Sen. Toomey enters our story. In June, he had objected to an accounting procedure for $400 billion that was in the original bill the Senate had passed and sent to the House. On Wednesday, he resurfaced his objection as a reason to block the bill Republicans had already decisively supported.

Why did Republicans suddenly switch from yes to no? Democrats gave President Joe Biden a victory on a spending bill compromise last week, and they say Republicans didn’t want to give Biden a win on veterans’ care, too.

Toomey, of course, quickly denied that. But the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, said this veterans’ bill vote was “separate” from the overall spending deal but conceded, about the spending compromise, “obviously it doesn’t help.”

And so it goes in Congress. Today, many thousands of military veterans who are suffering from the same exposure that killed Bill Florey are coping with their latest reality: While it is nice when Republicans sincerely thank them for their service, “obviously it doesn’t help” them as they struggle to pay their medical bills and survive.

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