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For Congressman Raul Ruiz, Senate passing the PACT Act helps fulfill promise to fallen veteran Jennifer Kepner

The "Honoring Our Pact Act" will be signed into law next week by President Biden. The bill will be expanding health care and other benefits for veterans. 

News Channel 3's John White spoke with Congressman Dr. Raul Ruiz about his fight for this bill in the name of local veteran Jennifer Kepner.

Kepner was an Air Force medic exposed to toxic burn pits which caused her to develop pancreatic cancer. Kepner lost her battle with cancer in Oct. 2017 at the age of 39. She left behind a husband and two children.

Ruiz began has helped lead the charge in Congress to address the military’s use of toxic burn pits after meeting Kepner in 2017. Shortly after he co-founded the bipartisan Congressional Burn Pits Caucus to help increase awareness about burn pits.

Ruiz recalled a conversation he had on the Kepner family's kitchen table, shortly before her passing.

"She asked me to promise to fight for other veterans like her who were dying or their widows due to their exposure to burn pits"

- Congressman raul ruiz

A month before her death, Kepner spoke with News Channel 3's John White about burn pits and how she believed they caused her pancreatic cancer.

At Joint Base Ballad in Iraq, hundreds of tons of waste per day were burned including plastics, styrofoam, petroleum products, human waste and more, all burned with jet fuel.

"The burden of proof was on our veterans to prove that their illnesses were due to their exposure to toxic burn pits, and many of them like Jennifer Kepner were denied," Ruiz said.

That meant Kepner spent the last months of her life fighting not for herself but for her family to make sure her husband Ben, daughter Adia, who was 9 at the time and son Wyatt, who was just two, would be okay.

"I want my husband and my children to be compensated if something happens to me," Kepner told John White in 2017.

"The VA denied Ben Kepner the survivor benefits or death benefits and because they didn't see the link to burn pits, I got involved and fought with the Kepner family to eventually get them the benefits they have earned and they need it," Ruiz said.

Now, there will be presumptive benefits for veterans who have over 20 different illnesses including a number of cancers. Benefits that would have helped Kepner when she was alive.

At her funeral, Ruiz vowed to keep up her fight.

"I'm going to speak a bit about burn pits because that's what Jen asked me to do, because she wanted me to make noise about this issue," Ruiz said at Kepner's funeral.

"We brought justice to Jennifer Kepner, her family, and all the other veterans and veteran service organizations who have been fighting for this for so many years.  a promise made was a promise kept," Ruiz said.

The White House is now planning a bill signing ceremony for Monday and Ruiz has invited Jennifer Kepner's husband to attend.

Stay with News Channel 3 for continuing coverage on this story that we have been following closely since Jennifer Kepner first shared her story with us five years ago.

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John White

John White anchors News Channel 3 Live at 5:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 11:00 p.m.on KESQ-TV and CBS Local 2. Learn more about John here.

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