‘Painful, frustrating delays’: Biden recalls son Beau’s cancer ordeal as he speaks about burn pits legislation

The president also pointed out that a number of Republicans voted against the legislation to deliver health benefits to servicemembers who were exposed to toxic fumes in the line of duty

Andrew Feinberg
Washington DC
Tuesday 21 May 2024 19:56 BST
President Joe Biden, center, talks with John Lynch, former Governor of New Hampshire, right, and Lynch's spouse Dr. Susan Lynch, left, on the tarmac during Air Force One arrival at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Joe Biden, center, talks with John Lynch, former Governor of New Hampshire, right, and Lynch's spouse Dr. Susan Lynch, left, on the tarmac during Air Force One arrival at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (AP)

President Biden on Tuesday praised America’s military veterans as the “solid steel spine of our nation” as he hailed the Department of Veterans Affairs’ progress in implementing a two-year-old law that has a deeply personal backstory for his family.

The president said that the matter of helping veterans suffering illnesses related to exposure to toxins was “personal” for him on account of what happened to his late son, Joseph R Biden III — better known as Beau.

Beau Biden, who had been elected to serve as Attorney General in his family’s home state of Delaware, was also an Army National Guard major and judge advocate who served overseas in Iraq. There, he was exposed to burn pits.

In 2013, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a highly aggressive form of brain cancer. He passed away two years later.

The president said his late son’s ordeal left him “determined ... come hell or high water” to “protect the heroes who protect our nation,” and compared the plight of today’s veterans to Vietnam-era veterans who had trouble proving that their illness were related to exposure to Agent Orange during their service.

“That’s why I pushed the PACT Act — so today’s veterans don’t suffer the same painful, frustrating delays and denials,” he said. “That’s why we continue to work around the clock to get veterans benefits they deserve and get them now.” He noted that a number of Republicans had voted against the bill.

Beau Biden was Joe Biden’s eldest son
Beau Biden was Joe Biden’s eldest son (AP)

Speaking in Nashua, New Hampshire, Biden said the bipartisan bill in question — whose official name is the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — was part of what he described as America’s “truly sacred obligation” to care for military veterans and their families.

He also said he was “proud” to say that as of today, the Department of Veterans Affairs had granted more than one million claims under the legislation.

“That matters because too many servicemembers” have braved the battlefield while “breathing in toxic fumes” from burn pits, the president said, describing the pits as comparable to American football fields in size, ten feet deep and used to “incinerate all the wastes of war”. They burn “everything from tires, to chemicals to jet fuel and so much more ... smoke thick with poison, spreading through the air and in the lungs of many thousands of troops who lived in, worked near them,” he said.

The president recalled the smell of the pits, which he encountered during visits to Iraq while serving as Vice President from 2009 to 2017.

Continuing, he pointed out that veterans who came home from those wars ended up suffering from illnesses similar to those which felled thousands of first responders who were present in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York.

After those attacks, burning debris from the collapsed World Trade Center buildings sent a toxic cloud into the air that was large enough to be seen by astronauts on the International Space Station. More than two decades later, first responders who were present during the attacks and the cleanup afterwards are still coming down with illnesses linked to toxic exposure.

Biden said the experience of 9/11 first responders was “incredibly helpful” to his efforts to get the PACT Act through Congress.

“You shouldn't have to prove that your illness came from your service. But thanks to the fact that you don't have to prove it now,” he said.

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