Tears of both sadness and joy filled the White House on Wednesday morning as President Joe Biden signed into law a bill to assist veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service.
The largest contingent of those at the signing ceremony — veterans whose health was harmed by smoke from waste “burn pits” during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — lamented the harm done to so many while cheering comedian Jon Stewart, the leader of their long fight for Congress to provide health care for those affected.
A smaller group of veterans and family members in the crowded East Room, whose lives were upended by contaminated drinking water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, owed their presence to a lower-profile advocate on their behalf, South Carolina attorney Ed Bell.
Bell spent years shepherding Camp Lejeune victims from office to office on Capitol Hill, telling lawmakers their stories about illnesses and deaths they believe were linked to toxic compounds the Navy has acknowledged poisoned the base water supplies for decades, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.
“We didn’t have a single senator or congressman say no after we met with them, not one,” Bell said in an interview as the so-called PACT Act, a sweeping package of health benefits and legal empowerments for exposed veterans, slowly worked its way through Congress this summer.
The main focus of the new law is to provide Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to those among an estimated 3.5 million servicemembers who were exposed to toxic burn pits and later contracted any of nearly two dozen illnesses, ranging from skin rashes to cancer.
The legislation was years in the making but only reached final passage in the Senate on Aug. 2, after Stewart spent days and nights with veterans on the Capitol steps demanding that Republicans who were blocking the bill stand down.
Biden acknowledged the efforts of the former host of “The Daily Show” at the signing ceremony. “You refused to let anybody forget, and we owe you big,” Biden told Stewart, who received a standing ovation.
Long fight for Camp Lejeune victims
The lesser-known but no less important provisions in the bill, allowing victims of the Camp Lejeune contamination to seek compensation from the government in federal court, were largely the result of a yearslong lobbying effort by Bell and a relentless group of former Marines and family members who lost loved ones or suffered debilitating illnesses after spending time at the base.
As many as a million people lived at Camp Lejeune when the drinking water was contaminated, the Navy estimates, and more than 4,500 later filed damage claims that were all denied by the secretary of the Navy in 2019.
Many of those victims — including former Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, who lost a daughter to leukemia in 1985, nine years after she was conceived at Camp Lejeune — also filed federal lawsuits seeking compensation, but those were all dismissed after a 2014 Supreme Court ruling in a separate case said a North Carolina law blocked damage claims against polluters in the state more than 10 years after their last acts of pollution.
“At that point in time, I said the only thing we could do was go to Congress,” said Bell, who joined the effort to help Camp Lejeune victims about 15 years ago.
Bell drafted a measure to allow the victims to file federal lawsuits and persuaded the late North Carolina Rep. Walter B. Jones, a Republican who represented the district that includes Camp Lejeune, to introduce the Camp Lejeune Justice Act before his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2019.
Republican Rep. Greg Murphy, who succeeded Jones, picked up the cause after reading a report about the diseases afflicting many veterans in his district.
Bell recalled meeting with Murphy on a Sunday afternoon, and he did not expect the surgeon and conservative lawmaker to support a bill allowing lawsuits against the government. “But when I got there he had the health study in front of him, and he said to me, ‘Goddammit Ed, what have they been doing to our Marines? They’ve been killing them,’” Bell said.
Murphy joined forces with Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., and the two helped Bell solicit support from lawmakers in both the House and Senate.
The bill was folded into the PACT Act earlier this summer and passed the House in July with help from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Bell said. “The secret sauce in the House was Nancy Pelosi,” he said. “She took this up individually and walked this through the House.”
There were still hurdles to overcome in the Senate, mainly concerns expressed by Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas and other Republicans about whether the funding for VA benefits for burn pit victims should be mandatory or discretionary. Moran blocked passage of the bill for weeks while the lead sponsor, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., led negotiations on a compromise.
Finally, Bell received a call from the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, setting up a meeting on the bill in June.
“I didn’t think McConnell would call us if it wasn’t going to happen,” Bell said. “He did say he was glad that Moran and Tester had reached an agreement, and that was the stumbling block in the Senate. When that comment was made we knew we were OK.”
There were a few more obstacles to overcome before Senate passage in late July, but now that the bill has been signed, Bell said the battle shifts to federal court in North Carolina, where lawsuits by Ensminger and others will be filed almost immediately.
If the victims are successful — and there could be thousands of cases, Bell said — the government could be ordered to pay out billions of dollars in damages.
Bell offered this argument to those who flinch at the possible costs: “When people hear there are so many claims out there, they say, ‘Darn, this will be expensive.’ You know what my answer to that is? If you’d only killed 10 Marines it wouldn’t be very expensive, would it?”