President Joe Biden on Tuesday continued his push for improved benefits for veterans suffering the ill-effects of toxic exposure from burn pit smoke, calling it part of the country’s “sacred obligation” to care for individuals who served in the military.
In a speech before veterans and Veterans Affairs staffers in Fort Worth, Texas, the commander-in-chief said for too long the serious health effects of military toxic exposure have been either partially addressed or ignored.
He acknowledged that research on the health effects of the waste pit smoke is still unsettled, but said that was no excuse for inaction.
“When the scientific evidence doesn’t give a clear answer one way or another, we should favor caring for our veterans while we continue to learn more, not waiting,” he said.
“Our troops came home [from Iraq and Afghanistan] and the fittest among them, the greatest fighting force in the history of the world, too many of them were not the same. Headaches, dizziness, numbness, cancer … We’re not waiting anymore.”
The comments came one week after Biden discussed the issue of military toxic exposure in his State of the Union address, devoting several minutes of the hour-long national address to veterans care.
In that speech, Biden implored Congress to pass new legislation providing more medical care and support services for veterans exposed to burn pit smoke.
Two days later, the House passed a comprehensive military toxic exposure bill (dubbed the PACT Act) over significant opposition from Republican lawmakers worried about the scope and cost of the measure.
In Texas, Biden called the measure and a smaller bill approved by the Senate in February “necessary care for veterans and their families” and asked lawmakers to “get those bills on my desk so I can sign them immediately.”
But finding compromise on the legislation will likely take several more months of negotiation between House and Senate lawmakers.
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In the meantime, VA officials are proposing new action to recognize several rare respiratory illnesses and cancers as presumed caused by burn pit exposure. That work is in addition to moves by the department last August, where officials for the first time established presumptive status for individuals exposed to burn pits who later contracted asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said about 12,500 veterans have received care and benefits for those conditions since last summer.
“It’s our job to provide those vets with benefits and care for those conditions,” he told the crowd before the president’s speech. “But for far too long, those vets haven’t gotten what they deserve. President Biden has made it clear that those days are over.”
Before the event, Biden and McDonough toured the Fort Worth VA Clinic, meeting with staff and patients.
Biden — whose son, Beau, served in the Delaware Army Delaware Army National Guard and died of brain cancer in 2015 — said that he sympathizes with the families struggling with the after-effects of war, and said the government needs to do a better job anticipating their needs instead of reacting to serious injuries and illnesses too late.
“Every single, solitary veteran deserves to be treated with dignity,” he said. “They shouldn’t have to ask for a damn thing. It should be ‘I’ve got a problem,’ and we should say, “How can we help?’”
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.