WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden urged military veterans on Friday to take advantage of new healthcare opportunities under legislation that he signed in August. He promoted the aid as he visited a Delaware National Guard facility named for his late son, Beau.
“It’s one of the most significant laws in our history to help millions of our veterans who are exposed to toxic substances during their military service," he said.
The law, known as the PACT Act, helps veterans get screened for exposure to things like Agent Orange, which was used for deforestation during the Vietnam War, and burn pits, where trash was destroyed on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The administration has been hosting scores of events around the country to draw attention to the new benefits. More than 730,000 veterans have already received screenings, according to the White House.
Beau Biden, the president’s elder son, served as a major in the Delaware National Guard. He died of brain cancer in 2015, and the president has suggested that exposure to burn pits on his base in Iraq may have been the cause.
“I’m no doctor but it’s pretty clear a lot of guys and women are getting sick,” Biden said.
One time, he said, “I remember Beau calling and saying I collapsed on a run.”
Biden said every time he passes the National Guard facility, he gets “a little bit of a lump in my throat."
As he started his speech, the president said his wife, first Lady Jill Biden, warned him, “Joe, don't get emotional.”
“Not that I ever get emotional,” joked Biden, who is known for wearing his heart on his sleeve.
The legislation, the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, was passed by Congress after years of advocacy by veterans.
It became the source of controversy in July when Republicans blocked its advance in the Senate, leading to demonstrations on Capitol Hill.
Biden said he made it clear to Congress that “if they didn’t pass this damn burn pit bill, I was going to go on a holy war, not a joke."
In addition to the screenings, the law directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to assume that some respiratory illnesses and cancers are connected to burn pits. This allows veterans to receive disability benefits without needing to prove direct causation.
Before the law, about three-quarters of disability claims involving burn pit exposure were denied by the government.
“Why should the burden be on the victim?” Biden said.
Biden was introduced by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. He's the last Vietnam-era veteran in the Senate, having served as a naval flight officer in Southeast Asia.
“To put it bluntly, this bill is going to save lives," Carper said. "A lot of them.”
Megerian reported from Washington.