FealGood Foundation’s John Feal

Originally aired on June 26, 2013

Feal explains his passion in fighting for justice for first responders of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S.

A U.S. Army vet and demolition supervisor, John Feal was asked to aid in the Ground Zero cleanup-recovery effort after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While supervising his team, his left foot was crushed, and he spent 11 weeks in the hospital, lost half of his foot and nearly died. He went through years of surgeries and incurred a host of health costs, but ultimately turned his personal drama into a mission of advocacy for injured first responders through his FealGood Foundation. He's been honored for his efforts (and for donating a kidney to a complete stranger) and, with his grass roots activism, influential in the passage of two bills benefitting 9/11 heroes.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: To date, some 20,000 9/11 first responders receive financial aid for treatment under the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which set aside almost $4.3 billion to compensate the men and women who fell ill after being exposed to the toxic dust and the debris of the Twin Towers.

Now the money they receive has been reduced due to sequestration, and activist John Feal is lobbying Congress to change all of that. He joins us tonight from, where else, New York City. John, good to have you on this program, sir.

John Feal: Mr. Smiley, thank you for having me. I’m honored, and I’m a big fan.

Tavis: I’m a big fan of yours, more importantly, and the work that you and others have done to try to bring some justice to this horrific situation all these years later.

I don’t want to color this first question too much. I assume that you are angry and you are angry with legitimate reason. Tell me why you’re so angry, and what you’re trying to do about it.

Feal: Well, I think I’m more than just angry. It’s always a lot of emotions in the 9/11 community, so as a 9/11 responder, I lost half of my left foot, spent 11 weeks in the hospital, I had dozens of surgeries. So I’m insulted.

As an advocate, I have been instrumental in helping pass three bills in Congress. I find this to be, as a common-sense, thinking man, I can’t put my arms around this. I’m frustrated. There are times when I’m angry, and we’re trying the best we can.

I’m not just me, there’s others who are fighting too, and there’s some good elected officials fighting, and there’s some good 9/11 responders who I bring with me to D.C. that are fighting.

This is an uphill battle, and our bill, the James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act, which we walked the halls of Congress for about eight years, we got that past two and a half years ago, and now our bill is being sequestered.

My problem with that is we’re the only bill in Congress that is completely paid for, and we reduced the deficit by $433 million. Where I come from, two plus two equals four.

I don’t know what kind of math they’re doing in D.C., but when you reduce the deficit, why do you want to cut it 10 percent? Also, there are 150 programs from military to handicapped that have lifetime exemptions from any sequester.

We were the first line of defense on 9/11. We’ve become handicapped since then. Those two reasons alone dictate that our bill should be exempt from any future sequesters, and I’m confident we’ll get it done.

But the thing is everything’s a hurdle and everything’s an obstacle and everything’s literally a game in D.C., and while Republicans and Democrats would rather see each other lose, the 9/11 responders, and more so the American people, wind up losing. It’s a shame that two parties put their political differences before the American people.

Tavis: I want to try to juxtapose two things that you’ve just said. On the one hand you said you feel confident; on the other hand, you said there are always hurdles and obstacles that you have to overcome.

I guess my question is why does it have to be this difficult? Why do you have to jump over hurdles and run an obstacle course? In other words, what are you hearing from members of Congress about why they’re making you run this maze?

Feal: Well, go back, when we were trying to get the Zadroga bill passed, they didn’t like the pay for, and our pay for is now we tax foreign companies doing business in the United States 2 percent. Wow. What a concept to save human life.

At the time, Republican leadership didn’t like the pay for, they didn’t like this, they didn’t like that. Certain Democrats didn’t like something. So it was always something that we had to fight for.

For eight years we fought to get a bill passed just to get simple healthcare and to compensate these men and women who are deathly ill. Since 9/11, we’ve lost close to 1,400 people from 9/11-related illnesses.

The statistics and the facts dictate that again, this bill should be exempt from future sequesters. You’ve seen how fast the air traffic controllers got exempt from sequesters, because members of Congress couldn’t fly home. You see how weather men are exempt from, the weather services are exempt from sequesters.

These men and women, law enforcement and firefighters across the country – now this isn’t just a New York issue. There’s 435 congressional districts in the United States. Four hundred and thirty of them were represented at Ground Zero.

Somebody from every state came to New York during the disaster to help during the cleanup and to aid New York, so this is a national issue. Viewers that are watching this across the country, somebody from your state is sick or has died from their 9/11-related illnesses. That’s sad.

Tavis: At the risk of sounding politically incorrect and maybe insensitive, let me ask anyway whether or not you think there is in Washington – dare I say it – 9/11 fatigue?

Feal: Well, they have 9/11 for 364 days out of the year, and then on that September 11th, on that anniversary, they’re all going to come out and say how patriotic they are – and that they stand by those who came to the aid of this great nation.

I’m a veteran of the United States Army, I’m a 9/11 responder who last half a foot, and I’m a kidney donor. In my mind, there’s nobody more patriotic. But I’ll call it like I see it, and those in Congress, 90 percent of them have done nothing to aid and protect their constituents. Frankly, I’ll say it – a circus monkey can do a better job.

Tavis: So if a circus monkey can do a better job but there are no circus monkeys who’ve been elected to Congress, what makes you so confident that that better job, or the job that needs to get done, will in fact get done?

Feal: Well, because we’re going to keep pressure on them, and then the anniversary’s coming up in three months, and then we call them out. Nobody likes to be that guy.

Listen, that’s how we got the last bill passed. We took things into our own hand and we pressured them. Three days before the bill got passed I almost got arrested. Capitol police were ready to handcuff me.

But again, when is human life not enough to give it your extra? We have a moral responsibility as human beings to feel other people’s pain and suffering, and when they’re in a good mood we feel their happiness and their sprits. As a human being, I feel the pain of the thousands of men and women who are sick and dying.

Our bill right now that was introduced by Peter King, a Republican in the House, and by Senator Gillibrand, a Democrat in the Senate, doesn’t cost any money. All it is is a piece of paper that says, “I’m going to do what’s morally right to help yesterday’s heroes.” There’s no more, no less. I just made it that simple for everybody to truly understand it.

Tavis: It doesn’t surprise me, obviously, that you’d have two New Yorkers in the House, Peter King, and Senator Gillibrand in the Senate, so not at all surprised that two New Yorkers have put their name on this bill and they’re leading the charge.

I’m not asking for you to call names per se here. What I am asking is what are the politics, if not the politicians, what are the politics that keep you having to jump through these hoops?

Feal: Most of the time it’s been Republican leadership, and that’s not me singling out Republicans.

Tavis: But why, why? What’s their issue?

Feal: Don’t know. There’s always some lame excuse. Again, while we were trying to get the bigger bill passed, they didn’t like the pay for, or they played games with us in committee votes and they said, well, we could stay here all night.

Or they said there’ll be no abortions to the 9/11 health bill. Nobody wanted an abortion. We just wanted healthcare to treat us for our illnesses.

Tavis: Right.

Feal: Congressman Barton from Texas said he could stay here all night; this is a game to him. I wound up ordering 20 Domino’s pizza pies and having them delivered to Congress. We stayed there all night. But these are the things you get.

This anniversary will be 12 years – 12 years since our nation was attacked. People moved on, and I don’t fault people for moving on. That’s human nature. After a disaster, after time, the media forgets about it, the American people forget about it, and they move on.

The anniversary reminds them of what happened, but what this country needs to know is that thousands of men and women are sick and dying, and I’m not making this up.

Everybody can check my facts. Almost 1,400 people have died. We lost 30 people this year alone, 28 of them to cancer and the other two to pulmonary fibrosis.

These illnesses are debilitating, they’re grave, and they’re killing these men and women. The average age of the 9/11 responder was the late thirties, early forties. Now they’re dying in their early fifties. That’s no way for a hero to be treated at all.

Tavis: I guess the question going forward is how does John Feal personally navigate his own life when this kind of anger is legitimate, it’s real? Because it seems to me that part of your healing, part of your moving on with your own life is not being stuck in this particular place.

It’s enough that you’ve got to be reminded of this every day you wake up hobbling on your foot. It’s another thing you’ve got to be reminded of it every year on the anniversary.

But how do you personally navigate your own life forward when you’re fighting these kinds of fights and you can’t be at peace in your own spirit and your own soul?

Feal: That’s a good question. You ever see “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray?

Tavis: Oh, yeah, many times.

Feal: That’s my life. Every day is the same repetitious reminder of 9/11 from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, and I’ve been angry my whole life, but I take that anger and I channel it towards positive energy.

I’ve been a fighter my whole life, I’ve wrestled half of my life, I’m a gym rat. I like a challenge; I like being told I can’t do something. I’m never the smartest man in the room, but I think the ability not to accept no for an answer when human life is at stake, I think that’s my gift to everybody else. Because other than that, I don’t have much to offer.

Tavis: I’ve always believed that braininess, smartness, is overrated. Give me somebody with courage and conviction and commitment any day of the week and I’m down with them. So you are the most courageous man in the room, John, and I thank you, sir.

Feal: Thank you, sir. I didn’t need 9/11 to know right from wrong. I needed 9/11 to show everybody how my mother raised me. When somebody suffers, you help them, period.

Tavis: Enough said – we’ll leave it there. John Feal, fighting on behalf of those and alongside those trying to make sure that they do not get punished by the sequestration in Washington.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

COMMENTS

  1. DStandingbear
    June 27, 2013 at 12:19 am

    Hats off to Mr. Feal for speak His truth! Thank you Mr. Feal for having the ethical and moral fibers to tell it like it truly is! We have too many representatives in D.C. that are not there ‘for the People’ nor do they represent ‘the People’. They have been bought by corporate / special interest lobbyists.

  2. KristenHunter
    June 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Excellent interview! Wish more people had a spine like him!

  3. Garth Saalfield
    June 27, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    Thank you for having Mr Field on your show, Tavis.
    Reading congressional names might have been the only positive improvement you might have added, but a very good interview.
    There are so many reasons why I watch your show. This was 1 of them. Thanks~

  4. Maggie "Ski's twin"
    June 27, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Tavis…..thank you for having John on your program. And John, thank you for all you have done and are doing for those most affected by the 911 events. Like you, I wake every morning remembering 911 for my brothers dedicaton to this great country, his love for human life and his love for children. He made the ultimate sacrifice for his love of his New York city and Americans every where. John, may those that have lost their fights continue to send you strength so that you may continue your battle to ensure that America Never Forgets all of her unsung heros.

  5. Margaret
    June 28, 2013 at 7:44 am

    Thank you John for everything you have done for so many !

  6. Crystal
    June 28, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Thank you John for everything you have done. Travis thank you for having John on your show! Like you, I remember 9/11 everyday, especially now that my dad lost his battle to lung cancer because of 9/11 sickness. We will always support you in anything that you do and will Never Forget!

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Last modified: June 27, 2013 at 11:56 pm