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Biden signs bill to help veterans exposed to toxic burns

President Biden, who has long been a proponent of the comprehensive benefits, has speculated that his son Beau developed brain cancer from exposure to fire pits while serving in Iraq.

Credit…Leigh Vogel for The New York Times

August 10, 2022, 12:49 PM ET

WASHINGTON — President Biden signed a law on Wednesday extending medical benefits to veterans exposed to toxins from burning waste pits at military bases, ending a years-long search for support by veterans and their families.

The issue is very personal to 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 poison, is spreading through the air and into the lungs of our troops,” he said. “When they got home, many of the strongest and best warriors we sent to war were not the same. Headache, numbness, dizziness, cancer. My son, Beau, was one of them.”

At a ceremony filled with veterans and their families in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Biden called the new law progress toward fulfilling “a sacred obligation” to those defending the nation and their families. The law passed despite a last-minute delay by Republican senators, who blocked the passage but withdrew after fierce resistance.

“This is the most important law our country has ever passed to help millions of veterans who have been exposed to toxic substances during their military service,” Mr Biden said, adding a few minutes later: “This law should have been long overdue. We finally made it happen, together.”

The legislation addresses the effects some veterans experience after sleeping and working near major fires at military bases where waste — including tires, jet fuel, chemicals and other equipment — was burned, creating large clouds of smoke. Research suggests that toxins in the smoke may be responsible for a range of ailments that veterans suffer from, 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 have been exposed to toxic substances during their service to apply for medical benefits with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The law creates a flow of $280 billion in federal funding, making it one of the largest expansions of veteran benefits in U.S. history.

In his remarks, Mr Biden praised the years of work by family members and activists, broadcasting Jon Stewart, the comedian, for his impassioned and sometimes angry demands that politicians pass the bill.

“What you’ve done, Jon, is important, and you know it does,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Stewart, who was in the room for the signing ceremony. “You should know. It really matters. You refused to let anyone forget. Refused to let them forget, and we owe you a lot, man.”

Mr Stewart, who has been lobbying for the bill for years, was… very vocal last month, when Republican senators abruptly refused to support the measure, out of concern that it was structured so as to create a costly new right. The legislation had been passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, and the Republican senators who objected had only expressed their strong support weeks before.

When he appeared on CNN after Republicans blocked the bill, Mr. Stewart was furious, provoking an intense reaction that led to the bill’s final approval 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 the cruelty, the casual cruelty.”

In his comments on Wednesday, Mr. Biden did not mention Republican obstruction. Instead, he focused on the two-pronged nature of the agreement, citing the passage as proof that he kept his promise to bridge ideological divides in the nation’s capital to get things done.

“I don’t want the press to tell me that Democrats, Republicans can’t work together,” he said. “We made it happen 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 the new veterans’ benefits. The legislation is named after her husband.

In her own comments at the White House, Ms. Robinson described how her husband developed cancer ten years after returning from battle. She thanked Mr. Biden and the other activists for urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would make it easier to get medical treatment and benefits after similar exposures.

“So many veterans are still battling burn disease today,” she said. “Too many have also succumbed to those diseases. And I am honored to be with the father of another military family who understand the ultimate sacrifice as we do – our Commander in Chief, President Joe Biden.”

Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015.

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