Rep. Raul Ruiz was a sponsor and staunch advocate of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT Act), which became law last August and expands Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and care for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances.
But even before that, he introduced the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020. On February 28 during The American Legion’s Washington Conference, Ruiz shared with Legion Family members why he was so passionate the cause: meeting Air Force veteran Jennifer Kepner, a constituent of his who was exposed to burn pits in Iraq and died of pancreatic cancer.
“Before her death, Jennifer asked me to fight for veterans like her who had been exposed to burn pits, which she called, ‘the Agent Orange of our generation,’” Ruiz said. “And I promised her at her kitchen table when we met that I would fight for her and other veterans that had been denied benefit due to their exposure to burn pits. And now, veterans like Jennifer Kepner and families like hers will be able to receive the benefits and care that they need … without facing an arduous process from the VA.”
Ruiz, an emergency medicine physician, was honored for his efforts with the PACT Act and other veterans advocacy prior to his address by being presented The American Legion’s Distinguished Public Service Award. He, in turn, thanked the Legion for its support of and advocacy on behalf of the PACT Act.
“The Honoring Our Pact Act is now the law of the land because of you,” he said. “This is a great victory that we shared together because of the leadership and the advocacy of The American Legion (and its members) from all across the country and fought over the years to move this legislation forward. I’m so thankful to have had advocates like The American Legion by my side pushing for these veterans throughout the entire journey.”
Ruiz said the next step is ending the use of burn pits “once and for all, so that future generations of servicemembers won’t have to face the same health crisis as our Vietnam and Gulf War exposed veterans have.”
He also spoke about providing proper support for non-U.S. citizens who served in the military but now “still face the dangers of deportation, and being separated from their families and communities. I believe that if you fight and risk your life for our country, you should stay in our country. That is why as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last Congress, I led the caucus in support of (Rep. Mark) Takano’s Veterans Service Recognition Act to prevent the deportation of non-citizen servicemembers and give them due process in America and a fair shot at a pathway to citizenship. With the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ and your support, this passed the House last Congress.
“While we are still working hard to bring this legislation to President Biden’s desk, together with the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, we brought forward the initiative to support non-citizen servicemembers, veterans and immediate family members. This new portal ensures that veterans and their family members get the assistance and direction they need with their immigration cases when they need it.”