President Joe Biden, whose eldest son died of cancer after serving in Iraq, on Wednesday signed legislation expanding federal health services to veterans who served at military bases where toxic smoke was billowing huge “hearths”.
“Many of you here today remind us that we fought for this for so many years,” Biden said at a moving White House ceremony that reflected the struggles of military families — and the president’s personal experience.
Biden was introduced by Danielle Robinson, the widow of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died of cancer two years ago. The law bears his name.
She described her late husband as ‘a soldier as strong as an ox’ but also ‘the ultimate hug’ for her daughter Brielle, who stood alongside her mother, holding a plush figure dressed in military camouflage.
“Ours is just a story,” said Danielle Robinson. “So many military families had to fight this terrible emotional battle. So many veterans still struggle with burn heart disease today.
After the Robinsons took their seats for the president’s remarks, Biden addressed Brielle directly.
“I know you miss your dad. But he’s with you all the time,” he said. “He’s in you. He will whisper in your ear when you have difficult decisions to make.
Then he pointed out that Brielle was sitting next to her grandson Beau Biden’s son.
“His father lost in the same hotbeds,” Biden said. “He knows what you’re going through.”
It was the most direct link the president has publicly made between Beau’s deadly brain cancer and the burn pits, which were used to dispose of chemicals, tires, plastics, medical equipment and waste. humans on military bases.
Biden made solving the problem one of his priorities during his State of the Union address in March.
“I was going to do it come hell or high water,” he said Wednesday.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Biden was one of the driving forces behind the legislation, which passed last week.
“He was continually insistent because whether Beau died of it or not, I think Joe thinks it had some impact, and so he wanted it fixed,” Tester said. “And because he thinks it was the right thing to do. Such a different president, such a different set of priorities, that probably never would have happened.”
Burning pits have been used as a disposal technique in Iraq and Afghanistan; however, 70% of disability claims involving pit exposure were denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“For too long, too many veterans who have fallen ill fighting for our country have had to fight for their care here at home,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said at Wednesday’s ceremony.
The legislation will force officials to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were linked to exposure to the burn pit, helping veterans get disability benefits without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.
“Veterans who have been sickened to the point of not being able to work, unable to care for their families, will not have to spend that time fighting the government to get the health care they have earned,” said Jeremy Butler, leader of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “It’s monumental.”
Butler attended the ceremony with Le Roy and Rosie Torres, husband and wife veterans healthcare advocates who started the Burn Pits 360 organization. After serving in Iraq, Le Roy Torres developed constrictive bronchitis, making difficult breathing.
Although the provision for fire pits has received the most attention, other health care services will also be expanded.
Veterans who have served since the 9/11 attacks will have a decade to enroll in VA health care, double the current five years.
And there’s more help for Vietnam War veterans. The legislation adds hypertension to a list of illnesses that are presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the US military to clear vegetation.
Veterans who served in the war in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will also be considered to have been exposed to the chemical.
The legislation is considered the biggest expansion of veterans’ health care in more than three decades, but it became unlikely political football shortly before it was passed.
On the day the Senate was supposed to give it final approval, Republicans unexpectedly blocked it. Veterans who had traveled to Washington for a moment of triumph were devastated.
“All the veterans were there expecting to celebrate,” Butler said. “And then they were absolutely stabbed in the back.”
Republicans have expressed concern about technical changes to the funding legislation. Democrats accused them of throwing a tantrum because they weren’t happy with a separate deal to advance Biden’s domestic agenda on climate change, taxes and prescription drugs.
Instead of returning home, some veterans began holding what they called a “fire watch” outside the Capitol, an impromptu vigil to keep public pressure on the Senate.
They stayed around the clock, despite the sweltering summer heat and torrential thunderstorms. Joining them is Jon Stewart, the comedian who championed veterans. Biden wanted to go but couldn’t because he was self-isolating with a coronavirus infection, so he spoke to protesters on a video call when VA Secretary Denis McDonough dropped off a pizza.
Days after the protest began, the Senate held another vote and the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Veterans were in the gallery to watch the vote take place.
“Everyone I was with was bawling. I just screamed,” said Matt Zeller, a former Army captain who was among the protesters. “I cried for a good five minutes.”
Associated Press writers Seung Min Kim and Josh Boak contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.