There is something inherently special about our first responders. They are both heroic in their actions and their character. It’s why our children grow up playing with model firetrucks, police cars or ambulances, and dream of a day when they could save lives too. Kids imagine putting on that heavy jacket and helmet and running toward danger to help others. Even at a young age, there is an instinct that selflessness, humility and courage are virtues that are admired and needed.
As we grow older, we come to recognize that because of these heroes, our nation keeps turning the page. They are a living representation of our American spirit — that we need never live in fear.
In the history of our country, there is perhaps no clearer example of this than on Sept. 11, 2001. Our first responders saw the disaster that day. Unimaginably, they saw the fire, the rubble and the clouds of black smoke. They knew the danger that was before them, but with thousands in need, brave men and women went straight into the horrors of evil. Firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency officials set aside every instinct for their personal safety to save the lives of total strangers.
That day, 412 emergency workers gave their lives while saving others. Among them were 343 firefighters.
In the years since, we have realized that the toll did not stop there. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we have lost more than 2,000 first responders and survivors due to 9/11-related cancers and illnesses. Thousands of emergency workers who worked day and night to rescue people trapped in the rubble are battling cancer and other illnesses because of exposure to the toxic debris that was left at ground zero.
Shortly after 9/11, Congress established the Victims Compensation Fund to assist the families of those who died and the survivors who suffered illnesses and disabling injuries during or in the aftermath of the attacks. This included financial assistance for those who lived or worked near the attack sites and later developed exposure-related health conditions.
Last February, the Department of Justice announced that the remaining funding in the Victims Compensation Fund would be unable to pay all pending and projected claims.
That’s why I was a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Never Forget the Heroes Act in the Senate. It secures funding for the Victim Compensation Fund by extending its life until 2092. This will ensure that victims of 9/11 and the resulting aftermath will have the opportunity to access the funds they need. Congress recently passed an identical bill, and it was an honor for me to be at the White House watching as President Trump signed it into law.
This bill was a top priority for our Nebraska firefighters, and I was proud to work closely with them in supporting it. From Scottsbluff to Omaha, they are heroes in our communities.
We can never repay the men, women and families for their sacrifices after the deadliest attack on American soil. But Congress should do its small part in helping these victims heal. Now, just as we never have to fear that our brave firefighters and first responders will do what is necessary to keep us safe, they can live with peace of mind, knowing government will keep its strong commitment to them.