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Nation Fails to Honor, Protect 9/11 Heroes Again

For nearly nine years the 9/11 rescue workers have labored to have access to healthcare to treat the injuries sustained when they worked at ground zero on September 11, 2001, when planes slammed into the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan.  And the bill that would finally have granted those sick 9/11 rescue workers some help failed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday.

I know only four of these workers personally. And tonight I feel such shame and outrage that the only way I can express my sorrow is to let others know some of what I know and what I feel tonight.  Collectively we must do something to weigh in -- our humanity demands so.

The failed bill was called the Zadroga Act, HR847, and it had 115 Congressional co-sponsors in the House.  It was named for police officer James Zadroga, who died of respiratory ailments after working at ground zero.

An estimated 10,000 workers who spent time working at the site are still suffering in the aftermath of that horrific day.  If we had a single-payer, Medicare for all type health system in this nation, these brave rescue workers would have had and would still have access to care. 

But because many became too ill to work following their 9/11 service and many lost their health insurance benefits as a result, many went without care at just those moments when it might have made the most difference.

Ruthless individualists that we are, our system forced thousands of rescue workers to prove their disabling conditions but left them broke and battered and without income or any benefits at all as they fought either workers compensation claims or Social Security appeals.  We asked them to do this while they were ill.  We sure treat heroes like less than heroes, eh?  None of them ever asked to see who could pay with which plans when they raced in to the towers to help, did they?

On the bright blue September morn in Manhattan, thousands of our fellow Americans ran into harm's way as the tragedy unfolded and as the rest of us sat transfixed to our television screens.  We all watched in horror as those events occurred -- and most people I knew were astounded by the bravery of the rescue personnel who fought their way into the smoke and the dust and the rubble and the broken buildings and the burning bodies and everything that exploded into the air.  Others ran away, covered in dust and dodging debris.  Others wandered lost in the clouds of toxic mist.  Close your eyes.  I'll bet some image of the awful day can still flash into your own consciousness, even all these years later.  It still makes me want to cry.  It still packs a gut punch.

And I wasn't there.  But thousands of people, thousands of our fellow Americans ran in where we could not.  As we watched, they acted.  As we cried, they tried.  And many stayed in the mess for weeks or even months.

Right now, it doesn't really matter to me what dysfunction of our political system caused the failure -- again -- of the bill that would help the 9/11 workers still suffering.  It doesn't matter to me that it was a Republican failure or a Democratic one.  I don't care if it was a procedural struggle or a political charade to call one another out on unrelated, hot button issues in advance of the mid-term elections in November.  It was wrong of us to forsake these amazing workers for this long, and it was wrong this week for Congress to let them down all over again.

I saw Rep. Anthony Weiner rage against the failed process, as I am sure many did.  But I want to see that rage turned into getting the help these responders need.  If you didn't see Rep. Weiner's comments:

Remember how we all felt about these workers in the hours and days after the buildings collapsed?  Do you remember all the politicians standing with them, wrapping their arms around them and promising them that they were to be honored -- always?  I remember.

The four 9/11 rescue workers I know all need some of the benefits this legislation would have given. Yet if we had a sane and just healthcare system that extended healthcare as a basic human right, we'd not be denying these rescue workers the care they so desperately need.

I met Reggie Cervantes, Billy Maher and John Graham first when we were being filmed for SiCKO, Michael Moore's 2007 film about the broken U.S. healthcare system.  Two have serious respiratory issues; one serious dental problems.  All struggle with varying degrees of post traumatic stress.  They saw and heard and smelled and touched things on 9/11 and in the weeks and months that followed that I cannot imagine -- and am grateful I probably never will.  When I asked them to tell me, they would often answer, "You don't want to know."

I met John Feal some months later.  John runs the Feal Good Foundation ( and has advocated for and helped 9/11 rescue workers and families for nine years.

One time shortly after SiCKO was released when my family was hurting to pay the bills and stay afloat, John Feal helped us without question or hesitation.  Another time, Billy Maher and his mom put together a care package for my family and shipped it to Denver from New York.  We were rescued.

I am so ashamed today that this nation's collective memory of their sacrifice is so short and so shallow.  I am sad that as a nation we have so far been too selfish and short-sighted to demand healthcare for all -- healthcare not health insurance.

And what nags at me most is the certainty that though we have failed them yet again by failing to pass this legislation or put in place a health system that would have spared them all their years of illness and many deaths is that still today I know without fail each and every one of them would still rescue me if I needed it.  Every one of them would rescue you or rescue one of the Congressmen or his or her family members even in the wake of their outrageous inability to pass this bill.

Reggie, John, Billy and John, I am so sorry.  We owe you our best efforts to rectify this in every and any way possible.  We must call every elected official.  We ought to send money to the Feal Good Foundation and help the rescue workers push onward.  We ought to keep our word to you.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith Donna Smith is the national chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign for Progressive Democrats of America.  She was featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO.

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