WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed legislation into law Wednesday that will provide health care and benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, achieving a long-term, personal goal.
“I was in and out of Iraq over 20 times,” Biden said of prior trips to the war zone he took as both a U.S. senator and as vice president. “And you could actually see some of it in the air — burn pits the size of football fields, and incinerated waste of war such as tires, poisonous chemicals, jet fuel, and so much more I won’t even mention.”
“When they came home, many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same,” Biden added. “Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer. My son Beau was one of them.”
Biden has long questioned whether his son Beau’s 2015 death from brain cancer was a direct result of his exposure to burn pits during his time in Iraq as part of the Delaware National Guard.
During his State of the Union address in March, Biden called on Congress to address the legacy of burn pits by passing legislation “to make sure veterans devastated by toxic exposures in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they deserve.”
Danielle Robinson, the widow of Ohio National Guard Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, for whom the bill was named, attended Biden’s State of the Union Speech and was on hand Wednesday to watch him sign the bill. Her daughter, Brielle, was also at the signing ceremony.
Danielle Robinson, while introducing Biden on Wednesday, said that “as a military spouse, when your loved one returns home safely from a deployment, you count your blessings.”
“You’re filled with gratitude. Fear turns to relief as you begin living as a family again,” she said. “But 10 years post deployment from Iraq, my husband, Heath, began the biggest battle of his life. A terminal stage four lung cancer diagnosis due to toxic exposure from a burn pit in Baghdad.”
Burn pits, she said, “became the biggest nightmare of our lives.”
Living alongside burn pits
The open-air burn pits used frequently during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were used to dispose of common items as well as medical waste, batteries and even jet fuel.
U.S. military members often lived and worked alongside the pits, breathing in the toxic fumes almost constantly.
But after returning from deployment, soldiers experiencing illnesses they believe were a direct result of that toxic exposure had to try to prove to the Department of Veterans Affairs that their illnesses were linked to their deployments in order to qualify for health care and benefits.
Veterans, family members and veterans service organizations began calling on Congress to change the system, a years-long effort that eventually resulted in the legislation known as the PACT Act that Biden signed into law Wednesday.
The $278.5 billion package would add 23 illnesses to the list of toxic-exposure-related conditions presumed to be connected to military service.
Veterans with those diagnoses will no longer need to try to prove to the VA their conditions are linked to their military service in order to qualify for health care and benefits.
The measure would direct more resources to VA health care centers, employees and claims processing, as well as federal research on toxic exposure.
And the bill would expand presumptions for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War. American Samoa, Cambodia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, Laos and Thailand would all be added to the list of locations where veterans are presumed to have been exposed to the chemical.
The bill, which was co-sponsored by Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, had broad bipartisan support in Congress. However, once the House and Senate reached agreement on the final version earlier this year, it took weeks to move the legislation through the Senate, the House and then the Senate again.
The U.S. Senate 84-14 vote in mid-June sent the bill to the U.S. House, where it was supposed to quickly go to Biden for his signature.
But a provision that was intended to bolster the number of health care providers in rural or very rural areas by buying them out of their contracts if they agreed to work for at least four years at those facilities ran into a problem.
The House Ways and Means Committee cited a so-called “blue slip” issue with making those buyout payments exempt from taxes, noting that tax provisions must begin in the House.
After stripping out that one provision, the House voted 342-88 in mid-July to send the legislation back to the U.S. Senate for final approval.
The bill was on track to pass in late July until a group of Senate Republicans blocked a procedural vote, citing concerns with language that had been in the bill all along.
The move infuriated veterans, their families and advocacy organizations, who began camping out on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and remained nearby until the Senate voted 86-11 earlier this month to send the bill to Biden. Celebrity comedian Jon Stewart, who was at the bill signing, took up their cause.
After signing the measure Wednesday, Biden handed the pen to Brielle Robinson, who had been seated next to Biden’s grandson during the event.
“You see the little guy who’s sitting right next to you? That’s my grandson,” Biden said. “His daddy was lost to the same burn pits, and he knows what you’re going through.”
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana
“This is a historic moment that has been months—even decades—in the making,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester in a statement from his office. “For generations, toxic-exposed veterans have been left to fight our government to get the health care and benefits they have earned. I’m proud to say after today, this fight is over. I’m grateful to Ranking Member Jerry Moran, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Mark Takano, our colleagues, Veterans Service Organizations, veterans’ advocates, and the Biden Administration for making this possible. Together, we are keeping our end of the bargain for promises made to our men and women who served in uniform.”
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, D-Montana
“Today, I was glad to vote for the ‘PACT Act’ to deliver disability and health benefits earned by Montana veterans suffering from toxic exposure that occurred during their military service,” Daines said earlier in a statement. “In recent days, I worked to ensure the VA is held accountable for meeting the needs of these veterans while also preventing big spenders in Washington from funding unrelated programs. While I’m disappointed these improvements did not pass, the ‘PACT Act’ passed with my full support.”
How to sign up for benefits
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said in a statement Wednesday that any veteran or surviving family members who believe they are eligible for benefits can visit www.VA.gov/PACT or call 1-800-MY-VA-411.
Veterans can also visit their local VA to file a claim or learn more about the new law.
Biden said during his speech Wednesday that he wanted to urge “the veterans of those decades of war to promptly file for your claims.”
“The VA will move as quickly as possible to resolve your claim and get you the benefits and the care you’ve earned,” Biden said.