President Joe Biden has said he “refuses to repeat the mistakes” from the Vietnam War and Agent Orange as he called on Congress to pass legislation to support US veterans who are sick and dying after being exposed to burn pits.
The president told the veteran community “we owe you” and vowed to “do better” in providing returning service men and women with access to the healthcare and benefits that they need, as he spoke at the Tarrant County Resource Connection in Fort Worth, Texas, on Tuesday afternoon.
“We learned a horrible lesson after Vietnam,” he said.
“We passed the law that I was proud to be a cosponsor of that if you had Agent Orange dropped on you, it was presumed that was the cause of the illness you have.”
But the president said the US was “too slow” to take action on Agent Orange and vowed not to repeat the same mistakes now when dealing with the health impacts from toxic exposure to burn pits in the wake of the post-9/11 wars.
“It took far too long and I refuse to repeat these mistakes for the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” he said.
Agent Orange was a herbicide used by the US military to clear the heavy jungle during the Vietnam War.
When troops returned home, many fell ill after being exposed to the toxic substance but they had to fight for years for their conditions to be recognised as connected to their service.
The Agent Orange Act was finally passed in 1991 – 16 years after the war ended – and some conditions were only added as presumptive long after that.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, US troops were breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits that were used to “incinerate the waste of war, medical and hazardous material... not far from where troops were sleeping”, he said.
“When they came home… too many of them were not the same.
“We don’t know yet enough about the connection between burn pits and each of these diseases our veterans are now facing. But I’m committed to find out everything we can.”
The audience clapped as Mr Biden said that there may not be enough information yet about the health impacts of breathing in the toxic fumes from burn pits but insisted that veterans should not have to wait for the evidence to catch up before they are given the access to the treatment they need.
“We’re following the science but also not going to force our veterans to suffer in silence,” he said.
“If the evidence does not favour one way or the other” then the answer, he said, is to provide the care for all veterans in need.
“Veterans are the backbone and spine and sinew of our country,” said the president.
“You are the best of us and we owe you.”
At his State of the Union address last week, Mr Biden dedicated a significant portion of his speech to the topic of burn pits and spoke about how he believed his son Beau Biden’s death may have been caused by his exposure to burn pits while serving in Kosovo and Iraq.
Two days after the SOTU, the House passed sweeping legislation that could grant access to healthcare and disability benefits for around 3.5m veterans who endured toxic exposure while deployed overseas.
On Tuesday, Mr Biden travelled to Texas with Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Denis McDonough where they visited the VA clinic in Fort Worth to meet veterans and families impacted by burn pits and VA healthcare providers about addressing the health effects of toxic exposure.
Following the meeting, the president and the VA secretary then spoke about expanding access to healthcare and benefits for veterans affected by burn pits.
This expansion is part of his “Unity Agenda for the Nation” unveiled in the SOTU which covers four bipartisan policy goals – one being increased funding and medical services for the country’s veterans.
Mr Biden described supporting veterans as the “only one truly sacred obligation” that US lawmakers have as he urged them to get burn pits legislation onto his desk to sign “immediately”: “Let’s get those bills to my desk so that I can sign them immediately.”
“The thing that bothers me the most when veterans aren’t looked out for because of what we owe them is that every single, solitary veteran deserves to be treated with dignity,” said Mr Biden.
“They shouldn’t have to ask for a damn thing.
“They should say ‘I’ve got a problem’. And we should say ‘how can we help?’”
Mr McDonough also spoke at Tuesday’s event, saying:“Whenever someone signs up to serve our country in the military, we make them a simple promise. If you take care of us, we’ll take care of you.”
He added: “They have waited far too long, they shouldn’t wait a moment longer.”
Tom Porter, executive vice president of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), told The Independent that the president’s latest comments showed a commitment that the “time is now” to tackle the issue of burn pits.
“We are grateful that President Biden and Secretary McDonough made such a priority today of underscoring the widespread health impacts of toxic exposures, including from burn pits, suffered by veterans.
“His remarks were a continuation of recent support by his administration for the IAVA-backed Honoring Our PACT Act, and in his remarks in his recent State of the Union address calling for a solution,” he said.
“His support, and that of the House in its passage last week of the PACT Act, make clear that the time is now to enact comprehensive military toxic exposures legislation.”
Veterans have been fighting for years for the US government to take the issue of burn pits seriously.
Huge open-air pits were used to burn mountains of trash including food packaging, human waste, military equipment and everything else on US military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Several veterans and advocates told The Independent earlier this year how they had returned home from deployment sick with rare forms of cancer and respiratory conditions caused by toxic exposure.
The VA estimates that 3.5m servicemembers and veterans have been exposed to burn pits and airborne toxins while serving the US overseas.
Yet, many revealed how they were denied access to VA healthcare and benefits because the burden of proof was on them to show that their rare illnesses were caused by breathing in toxic fumes from the huge pits.
In his SOTU last week, Mr Biden spoke about how his son Beau Biden died from a rare cancer he now believes may have been caused by his exposure to burn pits.
He also announced that nine respiratory cancers had been added to the VA list of illnesses that will be presumed to have been caused by burn pits exposure and called on Congress to pass legislation to ensure veterans who are sick and dying from toxic exposure “finally get the benefits and the comprehensive healthcare they deserve”.
“Our troops in Iraq – and Afghanistan – have faced many dangers. One being stationed at bases, breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits. Many of you have been there. I’ve been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan over 40 times,” he said.
“These burn pits that incinerate waste – the wastes of war, medical and hazardous material, jet fuel, and so much more.
“And they come home - many of the world’s fittest and best trained warriors in the world – never the same: headaches, numbness, dizziness, a cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin. I know.
“One of those soldiers was my son, Major Beau Biden. I don’t know for sure if the burn pit that he lived near – that his hooch was near in Iraq and, earlier than that, in Kosovo – is the cause of his brain cancer and the disease of so many other troops.
“But I’m committed to find out everything we can.”
Two days later, the House passed the bipartisan Honoring Our PACT Act on Thursday morning.
If it passes the Senate, the bill will ensure that veterans with 23 cancers, respiratory illnesses and other conditions after being exposed to burn pits on deployment overseas are granted automatic access to VA healthcare and benefits.
Lawmakers and members of the veteran community told The Independent last week that the timing of Mr Biden’s speech was significant to getting the bill passed in the House.
The Senate also has its own version of the bill – but veterans have said it is not nearly as comprehensive as it should be.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies