WASHINGTON (AP) — As President Joe Biden rattled off policy proposals in this year’s State of the Union address, he struck an emotional note when he spoke of veterans suffering from cancer after serving on military bases where toxic smoke billowed from burning garbage.
“One of those soldiers was my son, Major Beau Biden,” he said.
The president was careful not to draw a direct line between the combustion pits and her son’s deadly cancer, but he left no doubt that he believes there is a connection. The tragic death seven years ago makes a ceremony Wednesday, when Biden plans to sign legislation expanding federal health care for veterans, among the most personal moments for him since taking office.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said Biden was a driving force behind the measure, which was approved last week.
“I was continually pushing because, whether or not Beau died from this, I think Joe thinks it had some impact, so he wanted this fixed,” Tester said. “And because he thinks it was the right thing to do. So a different president, a different set of priorities, this probably never would have happened.”
burning pits they were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, medical equipment, and human waste. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied 70% of disability claims related to exposure to wells.
The legislation will require officials to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to exposure to burn pits, which will help veterans obtain disability payments without having to prove that the illness was the result of their service.
“Veterans who have gotten sick to the point where they can’t work, can’t take care of their families, they won’t have to spend that time fighting the government to get the health care they earned,” said Iraq chief Jeremy Butler. and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “This is monumental.”
Although provision involving burn pits has attracted 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 is more help for veterans of the Vietnam War. The legislation adds hypertension to the list of ailments presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the US military to clear vegetation.
Additionally, veterans who served during the war in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will also be considered exposed to the chemical.
The legislation is considered to be the biggest expansion of veterans’ health care in more than three decades, but it became an unlikely political football shortly before it was passed.
On the day the Senate was expected 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 because they were hoping to celebrate,” Butler said. “And then they were absolutely stabbed in the back.”
Republicans said they were concerned about technical changes in how the legislation was funded. Democrats accused them of throwing a tantrum because they were unhappy with a separate deal to advance Biden’s domestic agenda on climate change, taxes and prescription drugs.
Rather than go 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 twenty-four hours a day, despite the sweltering summer heat and torrential storms. Jon Stewart, the comedian who has advocated 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 off pizza.
Days after the rally began, the Senate took another vote and the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
The veterans were in the gallery. watching how the vote unfolds.
“Every person I was with was crying. Just crying,” said Matt Zeller, a former Army captain who was among the protesters. “I cried for five minutes.”
Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.