For decades, Republicans have positioned themselves as staunch supporters of the military, but last week’s vote to stall benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits has given some Democrats a political opening ahead of the November midterms to paint their opponents as un-American officials who refuse to support those they sent to fight.
“I don’t see these guys as all that pro-military. They’re always [saying] ‘support our troops’…but in my experience that’s been a lot of BS,” said Lucas Kunce, a Marine Corps veteran running for the Senate in Missouri. “They’re for wars, they’re for defense contractors they own stock in, but they’re not for veterans….I’m tired of hearing them say, ‘Thank you for your service’.”
Kunce, who was exposed daily to plumes of black burn-pit smoke during a deployment to Al Taqaddam air base in Iraq, is running to replace Sen. Roy Blunt, who is retiring and voted against the bill to expand veterans benefits. Missouri is holding its primary election today. Among the Republicans on the ballot, two current members of the House—Reps. Billy Long and Vicky Hartzler—voted against the bill.
“They basically bathed us in toxins,” Kunce said, adding that he suffers from post-nasal drip since the deployment. “They’re un-American. They always found money” to vote “over and over again for pointless overseas wars and wasted trillions of dollars” but not “when it came time to take care of us.”
Last week, 42 Republican senators voted against advancing the Honoring our PACT Act, which would assume a service connection for veterans who are suffering from cancers and respiratory illnesses after serving near the football field-sized burn pits the military used to dispose of trash, plastic, and human waste in Iraq. Their vote drew immediate backlash from veterans advocates, who have been protesting outside the Capitol for days; Democratic colleagues; and celebrities such as comedian Jon Stewert.
Nine Republican senators who voted against the bill are on the ballot in November. In eight of those races, Democratic challengers have seized the opportunity to paint their Republican opponents as unwilling to care for those who were harmed by the wars they overwhelmingly supported.
“I served this country as a fighter pilot for 20 years. My opponent voted to rob sick veterans of healthcare owed to them,” Luke Mixon, a retired Navy fighter pilot running for the Senate in Louisiana, tweeted alongside a photo of his opponent, Sen. John Kennedy, pinching his fingers together and saying it represents how much Kennedy cares about veterans.
But the nay-voting Republicans say they objected not to helping veterans but to the measure’s “budget gimmick.” The bill would make about $400 billion in Veterans Affairs funding mandatory, similar to programs like Social Security, rather than discretionary, which can be debated by Congress each year. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who has led the opposition, said he supports the substance of the bill and would approve it if the funding mechanism is changed.
But Brian Bengs, a Navy and Air Force veteran running against Sen. John Thune in South Dakota, said Republicans are playing “political games” with veterans’ healthcare. “@SenJohnThune put politics over veterans health care,” he wrote. “Elect me, I will always put our veterans first.”
The disagreement over the PACT act is just the latest example of Republicans, who have typically portrayed themselves as pro-military, clashing with troops and veterans. Republican lawmakers have hammered military leaders for “woke” efforts to end extremism and racism in the ranks. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley pushed back on these criticisms last year, arguing that troops should study and learn from the military’s history of racism to improve discipline and cohesion.
“What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?” Milley said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in June 2021. “What is wrong with having some situational understanding about the country we are here to defend?”
More recently, far-right lawmakers and military leaders have come to blows over a Defense Department requirement for troops to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The politicians argue there’s “no scientific reason” to require the vaccine, which is one of many troops must get. But military brass have called the virus “a threat to force protection and readiness,” one that can be overcome with the help of the vaccine.
Former president Donald Trump echoed that attack during a speech in Washington last month, accusing military leaders of not fighting hard enough to allow troops to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We have to abolish all COVID mandates and lockdowns and rehire every patriot who is fired from the military with an apology to them and give them their back pay that they’ve been looking for,” Trump said at the America First Agenda Summit. “It is a great shame of the Pentagon brass that they have not spoken out in defense of their own service members.”