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 about veterans suffering from cancer after serving on military bases where toxic fumes from burning trash emanate.
“One of those soldiers was my son Major Beau Biden,” he said.
The president was careful to avoid drawing a direct line between the burn pits and his son’s fatal cancer, but he left no doubt that he believes there is a connection. The tragic death seven years ago is a ceremony Wednesday, when Biden plans to sign legislation expanding federal health care for veterans, among his most personal moments since taking office.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Biden was a driving force behind the measure, which passed last week.
“He was constantly pushing because whether Beau died from it or not, I think Joe feels he had an impact, and so he wanted to get it fixed,” Tester said. “And because he thinks it was the right thing to do. So a different president, a different set of priorities, this would probably never have happened.”
Burn pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of chemicals, cans, tires, plastics, medical equipment and human waste. However, 70% of disability claims involving pothole exposure were denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The legislation would direct officials to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were linked to burn pit exposure, helping veterans receive disability payments without having to prove the illness was a result of their service.
“Veterans who have become ill to the point where they are unable 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, the head of Iraq. and the Afghanistan Veterans of America. “This is monumental.”
Although the provision involving cremation 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’s more help for Vietnam War veterans. The legislation adds hypertension to the list of diseases believed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the US military to clear vegetation.
In addition, veterans who served during the war in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll will also be considered to be exposed to the chemicals.
The legislation is considered to be the largest expansion of veterans’ health care in more than three decades, but it became an impossible political football shortly before it 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 down there because they were waiting to celebrate,” Butler said. “And then they were absolutely stabbed in the back.”
Republicans said they were concerned about technical changes to how the legislation was funded. Democrats accused them of being disgruntled a separate agreement 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” outside the Capitol, an impromptu vigil to keep public pressure on the Senate.
They stayed around the clock, despite the sweltering summer heat and raging storms. Jon Stewart, the comedian who has advocated for veterans, also joined them. Biden wanted to go but couldn’t because he was isolated with a coronavirus infection, so he spoke to demonstrators on a video call when VA Secretary Denis McDonough dropped off pizza.
Days after the demonstration began, the Senate held another vote and the measure passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
The veterans were in the gallery watching the voting progress.
“Every single person I was with was crying. Just crying,” said Matt Zeller, a former Army captain who was among the demonstrators. “I cried for five solid minutes.”
Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.