'Mad as hell': Veterans groups fuming over Lankford, Inhofe votes to block benefits for service members exposed to toxins
Local and national veterans groups are expressing outrage over Senate Republicans — including Oklahoma's Jim Inhofe and James Lankford — voting to block a bill meant to provide expanded benefits for service members exposed to burn pits and other toxins during their tours overseas.
"Very disappointed and very disgruntled," said State Adjutant Danny Oliver of the Oklahoma chapter of Disabled American Veterans, reached by phone Friday.
"They're putting the price of freedom on the veterans' backs, the ones who earned it, which is totally unsatisfactory," Oliver said. "It's un-American."
The Honoring Our PACT Act "would deliver all generations of toxic-exposed veterans their earned health care and benefits," according to Inhofe.
It previously passed the Senate on June with a bipartisan majority of 84-14. Inhofe voted yes, praising the bill in a statement; Sen. Lankford joined 13 fellow Republicans in voting against it, claiming he believed it would actually worsen health care at Veterans Administration facilities.
On July 13, the Senate-approved bill passed the House with an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 342-88. Four of the five members of Oklahoma's all-GOP delegation voted in favor; Rep. Kevin Hern voted against it, declining to provide a reason.
On Wednesday, though, the bill returned to the Senate due to a parliamentary hang-up, and was blocked by Republicans, including Lankford and Inhofe.
"How do you change your vote?" Oliver asked, rhetorically, of Inhofe. "It defies logic."
Oliver said the two senators had not consulted DAV or other veterans groups in determining their votes on the bill.
"It's disgusting," said Larry Van Schuyver, state commander of Oklahoma's Military Order of the Purple Heart and former Oklahoma Veterans Commission chairman.
"This is politics at its worst," Van Schuyver said. "When we send someone to war, let's take care of them when they come home. Let's fulfill our promise."
"I've been a Republican all my life, but these two gentlemen, both the senators, disappointed me greatly, and I damn sure wouldn't vote for either one of them again," Van Schuyver said.
"It breaks my heart. Angry, disappointed, and mad as hell," Van Schuyver said.
Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Tim Borland issued a statement Thursday expressing "outrage" at the Republican blockade of the bill.
"These 25 senators who broke their promise to veterans are risking more veterans getting sick and dying with every day this is delayed," Borland said. "These senators need to remember that it is the veteran that paid the price for their freedoms, the life they live and the fresh air that they breathe. Our team in D.C. is mobilizing our grassroots efforts to let these senators know the VFW will hold them accountable if they fail to honor their promise. We will not let the voices of veterans sick and dying from toxic exposure be ignored. Every veteran counts.”
American Legion Legislative Director Lawrence Montreuil accused Lankford, Inhofe and their GOP colleagues in the Senate of playing "political games" at the expense of veterans' lives.
"Every day that this delay goes on, veterans are unable to receive care," Montreuil said. "This is wrong. We will not stand by and allow veterans to be denied their duly owed health care. For cancer patients, a one-month delay makes all the difference. The American Legion demands that Congress end this delay and allow our veterans to receive the health care they desperately need and have earned."
Asked for comment, Lankford's office directed Public Radio Tulsa to the senator's June 16 statement after his initial vote against the bill. An Inhofe spokesperson said the senator and his colleagues voted no Wednesday "because they would like to see a fix to the mandatory spending issue [Pennsylvania Republican] Sen. [Pat] Toomey has been outspoken about before they pass the PACT Act again."
Critics have derided Toomey's explanation as "total [expletive]."