By John Lira
I served two combat tours in Iraq as a United States Marine. Like many of my fellow veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, I am familiar with the massive, gaping burn pits commonly used to quickly dispose of waste on forward operating bases.
Burn pits were a toxic catchall that produced a thick, noxious haze and blanketed everything within its immediate radius. Biohazards, including amputated limbs in some cases, car tires, batteries, and ordinary refuse, were frequently incinerated in the open pits.
Burn pit toxins are our generation’s “Agent Orange.”
Although the majority of burn pits are no longer operational, the consequence of their exposure looms large for millions of veterans. The fine particulate matter that burn pits produce is linked to severe health problems. Earlier this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) declared that nine rare respiratory cancers are presumed service-connected disabilities due to military-environmental exposures like burn pits.
The impact of burn pits on veterans is not abstract to me. One of my battle buddies died of cancer due to burn pit exposure less than a year ago. I met Franco Pacheco during my 2nd deployment to Iraq in 2005.
Franco found out he had terminal Glioblastoma in early 2020 and passed away in December 2021. He was convinced the development of his brain cancer was closely tied to burn pit exposure at Camp Hit, Iraq, and was working with advocates to make sure the VA recognized this so future veterans could receive the support he didn’t when he passed away.
His battle is now my battle.
Texas Republicans have made these vulnerable veterans the latest political football in Washington by aggressively opposing the bipartisan PACT Act to provide millions of veterans with desperately needed comprehensive VA medical care.
Following the bill’s defeat in the senate, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz could be seen proudly fist-bumping other members in celebration. Let me be clear: those who voted against the PACT Act, including Congressman Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, have betrayed America’s military men and women. (Editor’s Note: Gonzales’ spokesperson said he voted in July in favor of the most recent version of the PACT Act.)
Veterans like me are angry. We are tired of seeing our brothers-in-arms suffer due to our elected leaders’ lack of political will. We are frustrated by a system that has allowed our comrades to fall through the cracks.
My interest in politics and policy emerged because I wanted to learn who made the critical decisions about sending troops into battle and caring for them when we returned. Now, I am running for Congress as a veteran. I am committed to honoring the sacred oath of those who have worn our country’s uniform. That promise does not cease when a veteran falls ill due to their service.
I am running to represent a district with a heavy military and veteran population. TX-23 is home to four large military installations in San Antonio, Del Rio, and El Paso, with over 50,000 active-duty service members. There are approximately 43,000 veterans who live in the district.
The residents of TX-23 deserve a staunch advocate – a leader who will fight for them just as I did on the battlefield in Iraq over a decade ago. That means supporting the troops beyond the bumper sticker slogan. It means putting patriotism over party.
I am running for change. In the Marine Corps, I learned to leave no one behind. Even though I am no longer standing watch, I continue to uphold the Marine Corps values of honor, courage, and commitment.
Sadly, these principles are in short supply among Texas Republican leadership. How many more veterans are they willing to sacrifice?
John Lira is the Democratic nominee for Texas Congressional District 23.