Biden gets personal victory in signing of veteran health bill

Biden made no direct connection between cremation pits and the cancer that killed his son, Maj. Beau Biden, but made it clear that he believed they were related.

WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden rattled policy proposals in this year’s State of the Union address, he hit an emotional note as he spoke about veterans who are suffering from cancer after serving on military bases where toxic smoke billowed from burning garbage.

“One of those soldiers was my son Maj. Beau Biden,” he said.

The president was careful not to draw a direct line between the cremation pits and his son’s deadly cancer, but made it clear he believed there was a connection. The tragic death seven years ago makes a ceremony Wednesday, when Biden plans to sign legislation expanding state health care for veterans, among the most personal moments for him since taking office.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Biden was a driving force behind the measure, which was passed last week.

“He was constantly pushing because whether Beau died from it or not, I think Joe thinks it had some impact and so he wanted that fixed,” Tester said. “And because he thinks it was the right thing to do. A different president, different priorities, that probably never would have happened.”

Fire pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dump chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, medical equipment, and human waste. However, 70% of disability requests related to exposure to the pits were denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The legislation will direct officials to presume certain respiratory illnesses and cancers are related to exposure to charcoal pits and help veterans receive disability payments without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.

“Veterans who have become so ill that they are unable to work and care for their families do not need to spend that time fighting the government to get the health care they deserve,” Iraq chief Jeremy Butler said Afghanistan Veterans of America. “This is monumental.”

Butler is expected to attend the ceremony along with Le Roy and Rosie Torres, husband and wife who advocate for veterans’ health and who founded the organization Burn Pits 360. After serving in Iraq, Le Roy developed constrictive bronchitis that made breathing difficult.

Biden is joined by Danielle and Brielle Robinson, the wife and daughter of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who died of cancer two years ago. The legislation is named after Heath, and Danielle attended Biden’s State of the Union address as a guest of First Lady Jill Biden.

Although the provision of burn pits has attracted most of the attention, other health services are also being expanded.

Veterans who have served since the September 11 attacks 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 high blood pressure to the list of diseases thought to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the US military to clear vegetation.

In addition, veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll during the war are also believed to have been exposed to the chemical.

The law is considered the largest expansion of health care coverage for veterans in more than three decades, but it became an unlikely political football just before it was passed.

On the day the Senate was due to give final approval, Republicans unexpectedly blocked. Veterans who traveled to Washington for a moment of triumph were devastated.

“All the veterans were down there because they wanted to celebrate,” Butler said. “And then they absolutely got stabbed in the back.”

Republicans said they were concerned about technical changes in how the legislation is funded. Democrats accused them of having a fit because they were unhappy about a separate deal to advance Biden’s domestic agenda on climate change, taxes and prescription drugs.

Instead of going home, some veterans began holding what they called a “fire watch,” an impromptu vigil outside the Capitol to keep public pressure on the Senate.

They stayed around the clock, despite the stifling summer heat and torrential thunderstorms. Jon Stewart, the comedian who has campaigned for veterans, also joined them. Biden wanted to go but couldn’t because he was isolating with a coronavirus infection, so he spoke to protesters on a video call as VA Secretary Denis McDonough dropped by pizza.

Days after the demonstration began, the Senate held another vote and the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Veterans were in the stands watching the voting take place.

“Every single person I was with cried. I just yelled,” said Matt Zeller, a former army captain who was among the protesters. “I cried for a full five minutes.”

Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report. Biden gets personal victory in signing of veteran health bill

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