Biden signs bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burning stoves
WASHINGTON — President Biden on Wednesday signed into law a bill that extends medical benefits to veterans who were exposed to toxins from burning trash pits on military bases, ending a years-long quest for support by veterans and their families.
The question is deeply personal for the president, who has long speculated that his son Beau developed brain cancer from exposure to fire pits while serving in Iraq as a member of the Delaware National Guard. Before signing the legislation, Mr. Biden described the lingering effects of the exposures.
“Toxic smoke, thick with poisons, wafting through the air and into the lungs of our troops,” he said. “When they came home, many of the fittest and best warriors we sent to war weren’t the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer. My son, Beau, was the one of them.
At a ceremony packed with veterans and their families in the East Room of the White House, Biden called the new law a step toward fulfilling “a sacred obligation” to those who have stood up for the nation and their families. The law passed despite a last-minute delay by Republican senators, who blocked its passage but backed down after a backlash.
“This is the most important law our country has ever passed to help millions of veterans who are exposed to toxic substances during their military service,” Mr. Biden said, adding minutes later: “This law is long overdue and we finally got it together.
The Biden presidency
With the midterm elections looming, here’s where President Biden stands.
The legislation addresses the effects some veterans have suffered after sleeping and working near large fires on military bases where waste – including tires, jet fuel, chemicals and other equipment – has been burned, creating large clouds of smoke. Research suggests that toxins in smoke may be responsible for a range of ailments suffered by veterans, including cancer, bronchial asthma, allergic rhinitis, sleep apnea, bronchitis and sinusitis.
The new law, known as the PACT Act, makes it easier for veterans who believe they were exposed to toxins while on duty to apply for medical benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The act creates a $280 billion federal funding stream, making it one of the largest veterans benefit expansions in American history.
In his remarks, Mr Biden praised the many years of work by family members and activists, singling out Jon Stewart, the comedian, for his impassioned and sometimes angry demands that politicians pass the bill.
“What you’ve done, Jon, matters, and you know it,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Stewart, who was in the room for the signing ceremony. “You should know. It’s really, really important. You refused to let anyone forget. Refused to let them forget, and we owe you a lot, man.
Mr Stewart, who has been pushing for the bill for years, was particularly vocal last month, when Republican senators abruptly refused to back the measure, fearing it was structured to create a new expensive law. The legislation had passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, and Republican senators who opposed it had expressed strong support just weeks earlier.
Appearing on CNN after Republicans blocked the bill, Mr Stewart was livid, helping to spark an intense backlash that led to the bill’s final passage days later.
“I’m used to lies. I’m used to hypocrisy. I’m used to their cowardice,” Mr Stewart told Jake Tapper on CNN’s ‘The Lead’. “I’m not used to cruelty, occasional cruelty.”
In his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Biden did not mention the Republican filibuster. Instead, he focused on the bipartisan nature of the deal, citing its passage as proof that he has delivered on his promise to bridge ideological divides in the nation’s capital to get things done.
“I don’t want to hear the press telling me that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together,” he said. “We did it, and we did it together.”
Danielle Robinson, wife of Sgt. Heath Robinson, who died of lung cancer after serving in Iraq, spent years leading the fight for new veterans’ benefits. The law is named after her husband.
In her own remarks to the White House, Ms Robinson described how her husband developed cancer a decade after returning from combat. She thanked Mr. Biden and other activists for pushing lawmakers to pass legislation that will make it easier to access medical treatment and benefits after similar exposures.
“So many veterans still struggle with burn heart disease today,” she said. “Too many people have also succumbed to these diseases. And I’m honored to be with the father of another military family who understands the ultimate sacrifice as we do – our Commander-in-Chief, President Joe Biden.
Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015.