A prominent senator has joined numerous veterans advocates in their push to get the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to key figures in last summer’s fight for expanded benefits for victims of burn pit smoke and other military toxic exposure incidents.
In a letter to the White House on the eve of Veterans Day, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asked President Joe Biden to consider granting the nation’s top civilian honor to Burn Pits 360 founders Le Roy Torres and Rosie Torres, as well as entertainer Jon Stewart and activist John Feal.
“Because of [their] tireless work, millions of American veterans and service members are eligible for life-saving care for injuries that occurred as a result of their service and sacrifice,” she said. “Because of them, millions of Americans may have more precious time on this Earth with their loved ones.
“They have shown how a small group of like-minded and passionate citizens can overcome any obstacle to transform millions of lives for the better, demonstrating the power of possibility that can only exist in the United States.”
The move follows passage of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) in August. The legislation directs nearly $300 billion in spending over the next 10 years in new disability benefits payouts, additional department facilities and staffing, and research into military illnesses related to toxic exposure incidents.
Both Le Roy and Rosie Torres have pushed for the legislation for years, saying the move was needed to help all veterans, but especially the millions of individuals exposed to poisonous smoke from waste pit fires used in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Le Roy Torres, a former Army captain, began suffering health complications from that exposure when he returned home from a deployment to Iraq in 2008. Since then, the couple has used their struggles to help push for change in how the Department of Veterans Affairs handles such cases.
Stewart and Feal joined the advocacy work on the issue in recent years, using their celebrity status to increase public attention on the issue.
The pair were also involved in the week-long fire watch outside the Capitol in early August, urging Republican lawmakers to drop their opposition to the bill over concerns about its cost and scope.
Advocates and lawmakers at the time began to raise calls for the Presidential Medal of Freedom for the group, an idea that Stewart in particular deflected into praise for the thousands of activists involved in the effort.
The medal has been awarded to 673 individuals since it was established in 1963. Biden last awarded the medal to 17 individuals in July.
That group included prominent activist athletes like gymnast Simone Biles and Megan Rapinoe, Gold Star father Khizr Khan, former lawmaker Gabrielle Giffords and a posthumous award for Sen. John McCain.
White House officials have not yet responded to Gillibrand’s request.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.