President Joe Biden on Tuesday invoked his status as the father of a fallen soldier in a State of the Union promise to improve veterans health care and benefits, specifically focused on individuals suffering from the effects of toxic burn pit smoke from their time deployed overseas.
“I’m calling on Congress: pass a law to make sure veterans devastated by toxic exposures in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they deserve,” Biden said in his national address, calling it part of “a sacred obligation to equip all those we send to war and care for them and their families when they come home.”
Earlier in the day, the White House announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs will recognize nine new respiratory illnesses as conditions presumed linked to veterans’ military service, fast tracking them for payouts and medical care.
VA officials said the move will likely affect only about 100 veterans who were previously denied for claims linked to those rare cancers.
But Biden framed the move as “pioneering new ways of linking toxic exposures to diseases, which is already helping more veterans get benefits.”
In recent months, VA officials have expanded the scientific and medical evidence used to determine service-connected disabilities in an effort to ease the burden on veterans seeking disability benefits.
VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said in coming months, “VA will continue to gather as much science and evidence as possible to move swiftly for veterans facing serious illnesses due to military exposures.”
For years, advocates have lamented the slow pace of VA officials to recognize illnesses caused by toxic smoke from military burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan and other overseas bases. Biden highlighted the issue in his national speech, saying that the government is long overdue in responding to the issue.
“Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced many dangers,” he said. “One was stationed at bases and breathing in toxic smoke from “burn pits” that incinerated wastes of war.
“When they came home, many of the world’s fittest and best trained warriors were never the same.”
That group included Biden’s son Beau, who served in Iraq with the Delaware Army National Guard and died in 2015 from a rare brain cancer.
“We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops,” Biden said. “But I’m committed to finding out everything we can.”
The inclusion of burn pits issues and other veterans policy in the State of the Union was unusual.
In recent years, those topics have received just passing mentions alongside other domestic and national security priorities. This year, Biden devoted about five percent of his speech to the topic, on par with issues like border security and voting rights.
On Wednesday, House Democrats will hold a rally on Capitol Hill to push for sweeping toxic exposure legislation, responding to Biden’s charge. The measure — dubbed the PACT Act — has received praise from veterans groups but concerns from conservatives over its price tag: about $207 billion over 10 years.
In attendance at the State of the Union speech as one of the first lady’s guests was Danielle Robinson, a veterans advocate and widow of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died from cancer linked to burn pit exposure in 2020.
Biden hailed him as a hero for his military service and his medical fights afterwards.
“They loved going to Ohio State football games,” he said. “He loved building Legos with his daughter. But cancer from prolonged exposure to burn pits ravaged Heath’s lungs and body.”
“Danielle says Heath was a fighter to the very end. He didn’t know how to stop fighting, and neither did she. Through her pain she found purpose to demand we do better.
“We are going to do better.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
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