Activist and entertainer Jon Stewart hugs fellow advocate Susan Zeier of Sandusky, Ohio, just after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., assured veterans and military family members that the Senate will vote on a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. All but 11 lawmakers voted to pass the bill this week. N.C.'s Thom Tillis voted against.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) The PACT Act
Activist and entertainer Jon Stewart hugs fellow advocate Susan Zeier of Sandusky, Ohio, just after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., assured veterans and military family members that the Senate will vote on a bill designed to help millions of veterans exposed to toxic substances during their military service, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. All but 11 lawmakers voted to pass the bill this week. N.C.'s Thom Tillis voted against. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In a state with more than 13,000 veterans that have been exposed to toxic burn pits, Tillis voted against a bill that he, theoretically, supports.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said himself that he wrote a significant portion of the PACT Act. Still, Tillis was one of just 11 senators, all of them Republicans, to maintain their opposition this week.

The bipartisan federal legislation addresses the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ ability to provide healthcare for military service members exposed to toxins and represents the biggest expansion in available healthcare to the military in decades. 

It matters in North Carolina, a state with several major armed forces bases, a broad population of veterans, and as of last year, more than 13,000 North Carolinians had registered as being exposed to airborne toxins and burn pits in the line of duty. That’s 5th most among the states.  

By all accounts, Tillis should have been in favor of the bill. He’s been a lead proponent to provide direct benefits to those exposed to water contamination at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune. And he’s also worked on a broader bill to address toxins and military exposure called the TEAM Act, which was also included in the bill.

So why was he one of just 11 senators to vote against it earlier this week? Fellow North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr voted for the bill’s final passage. 

Tillis said in a statement and video on his website that it wasn’t “what we’re doing, it’s how we’re doing it.” He added:

“While well-intentioned, the PACT Act creates new promises to veterans while breaking existing ones, which is why I could not support its passage. I recently listened to [Veterans Affairs] Secretary McDonough describe the challenges the VA is facing in meeting current obligations and it’s clear that the Department does not have the capacity to properly implement the PACT Act. This legislation will have adverse operational and administrative impacts, and I remain concerned that it will result in increased wait times, delays in receiving care, and a substantial increase in the claims backlog. I fully expect that in the coming years, Congress will be forced to make substantial changes to account for these unintended consequences.”

Here’s the problem: While voting against the bill, Tillis could have called for increased funding for the VA to better help service members — something Congress expressly has the responsibility to do. Instead, he voted against a bill he says he stands for. 

It’s true that the VA faces a backlog of disability claims and the PACT Act will no doubt complicate things. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, another GOP member who voted against the bill, also worried that veterans would be compensated for health conditions unrelated to their military service.  

The military routinely used open burn pits to dispose of tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials into open burn pits during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that led to untold health problems for thousands of veterans, according to NPR.

Romney told DeseretNews that the PACT Act “would represent a dramatic expansion of qualifying conditions that aren’t necessarily service-connected disabilities.” 

Most people agreed with comedian and activist Jon Stewart when he and veterans’ activists spent the week hammering Republicans for their opposition to a bill that hurt military service members’ ability to get healthcare once they return home from serving overseas.  

Tillis’ opposition was a bit different from other Republicans. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey argued that Democrats had allocated billions in spending that could later be used for purposes other than providing healthcare to military service members.

The newsletter Tangle dove deep into the issue and found merit with Republicans’ claims, while noting that those same lawmakers had voted for the same bill previously before voting against it this week. 

Tillis didn’t fall into either of those camps, and his position is puzzling. 

Luckily, most Republicans in the Senate didn’t follow along with him.