FORT WORTH — President Biden repeatedly declared on Tuesday that the United States needs to take better care of veterans who became ill after being exposed to toxic chemicals during their military service, and he called on Congress to pass legislation granting benefits and comprehensive health care to those sickened. This issue is a personal one for Biden, whose late son, Beau Biden, served overseas near waste-burning pits that emitted toxins and then died of a brain tumor in 2015. Although many advocates for veterans were frustrated that Biden didn’t do more on the issue during his first year, they were encouraged the president has now embraced it and mentioned it in his State of the Union address last week.
Before a crowd of about 150 people, including dozens of veterans, Biden invoked the debate that unfolded after the Vietnam War — a period when veterans were denied coverage for decades for ailments caused by exposure to Agent Orange. A landmark law in 1991 that Biden co-sponsored as a senator designated a range of health conditions as directly related to their military service. “It took far too long to reach that decision, in my view,” Biden said at Tarrant County’s Resource Connection, a county-run community center in Fort Worth. “I refuse to repeat the mistake when it comes to veterans of our Iraq and Afghan wars.”
The president described the burn pits — where copious amounts of hazardous and medical waste would be incinerated — in vivid detail, noting that those pits were not far from where U.S. troops slept. When they returned home, some veterans would suffer from headaches, dizziness and numbness. Though Biden acknowledged more research is needed to establish a direct connection between burn pits and the ailments suffered by people exposed to them, he stressed that it should never delay care.
“We’re following the science in every case, but we’re also not going to force veterans to suffer in limbo for decades,” Biden said. “When the evidence doesn’t give a clear answer one way or another, the decision we should favor is caring for our veterans while we continue to learn more.”
Many advocates for veterans have been critical of Biden, saying he has not gone as far or as fast as they think he should, particularly on an issue where he had, before winning the presidency, vowed to take bold actions. Instead, many veterans groups became vocal and turned to television host Jon Stewart — who also championed aid to firefighters who were exposed to toxins while clearing rubble after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — to be one of their chief advocates.
“We were very excited to hear candidate Biden talk about burn pits and toxic exposures, but in office he stepped back in public comments on it,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
But he and others have noted a welcome shift from Biden, who used a portion of his State of the Union address to highlight the problem and call for congressional legislation.
“We’ve been waiting for that,” Butler said.
Experts are often uncertain of the direct link between specific cancers or diseases and the burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the military often burned large amounts of waste — including plastics, batteries or vehicle parts — that released plumes of dangerous chemicals into the air.
Veterans then have to prove there is a direct connection between their cancer and the burn pit chemicals, a threshold that can at times be difficult to meet, particularly if the condition doesn’t develop until years after a deployment. Studies have shown that Veterans Affairs rejects the vast majority of claims.
There are several pieces of legislation that would instead declare up to a dozen ailments as presumptive conditions, which would automatically grant federal coverage and benefits to veterans who can prove that they served at a particular place and time and that they have been diagnosed with one of the ailments.
The House last week passed a bill that would expand such access. The bill passed on a vote of 256 to 174 — with 34 Republicans joining all Democrats — but still needs to pass in the Senate, where there are similar efforts but with some Republicans raising concerns about the cost.
The House legislation has a $300 billion price tag over 10 years, which some have argued adds too much to the deficit and could trigger more backlogs at VA.
Biden’s visit in Fort Worth on Tuesday was meant to highlight his administration’s support for veterans — a major plank of a newly announced “unity agenda” he hopes Republicans and Democrats can support.
The president was greeted by a more than a half-dozen military officials on the airport tarmac. Later, Biden and Denis McDonough, Veterans Affairs secretary, toured a local VA clinic, where the president met and spoke with veterans undergoing physical therapy. At the county resource center, Biden received a warm ovation as he repeatedly pledged his commitment to veteran care.
But outside the center where Biden spoke, another military family waged its own demonstration.
Joey Reed was urging for release of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, his son who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2019 following a conviction for a drunken incident that Trevor Reed says he does not remember. U.S. officials have called the evidence against Reed put forward by the Russian government as flimsy, and his family has repeatedly met with Biden officials to push for his release.
Reed’s parents, who live near Fort Worth, disclosed last year that their son served as a Marine presidential guard at the barracks in southeast Washington and at Camp David during the Obama administration. That service, Joey Reed said Tuesday, made him a target to Russian officials. Now, Trevor Reed’s health is deteriorating, after he was exposed to tuberculosis in December, his father said.
“We want to meet the president at some point, just for a few minutes,” Joey Reed said in an interview Tuesday shortly before Biden arrived. “We want to remind him our son was willing to die for him. He’s not just a veteran. He’s a veteran whose job was to protect him.”
Joey Reed said the family was informed Monday that Biden would not personally meet with them during his day-long visit to Fort Worth. Asked about the issue on Air Force One on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is working on scheduling a meeting but did not offer additional details.
She noted that Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, sat down with the family late last year. Biden has also raised the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, speaking about Reed’s case and that of Paul Whelan, another former Marine behind bars in Russia, when the two leaders met in Geneva last year.
A White House official said Tuesday night that Biden called Trevor Reed’s parents after his speech in Fort Worth to “reiterate his commitment to doing everything he can to bring their son home, to staying in close touch with them through his national security team, and to finding a time to meet in person.”
When it comes to helping veterans who served near burn pits, administration officials have insisted that Biden was doing all he could and that he had pressed McDonough to oversee a rulemaking process that could result in more coverage for veterans.
In August, VA announced it was granting presumptive status to three conditions — asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis — but advocates were critical, saying those were not the conditions that were most deadly. VA has also been studying whether to add other cancers to the list.
While veterans groups say there is progress at the VA, they say the quickest and most comprehensive solution is for Congress to pass a law granting the coverage.
“It’s been a whirlwind. All of the sudden [Biden] has being really vocal about his position on the issue, which we’re grateful for,” said Rosie Torres, who founded the group Burn Pits 360 after her husband returned from Iraq with a debilitating lung disease. “But there’s a lot of families with their own Beau Biden story on burying their loved ones.”
Biden has also been reluctant to highlight his son’s death as much as some advocates — or family members who lost loved ones to the same cancer as Beau — want him to. Some close to the president have suggested he does not want to appear to be setting policy based on his personal emotions or grief over his son.
It was 2016 when Biden first publicly connected the brain cancer that killed his son to the toxic burn pits that Beau had been exposed to, citing a book that had been written about it and had included a chapter on Beau.
In a January 2018 interview with PBS’s Judy Woodruff, Biden said he thought burn pits played a “significant role” in his son’s death but added that the science was unsettled.
“There’s a lot higher incidence of cancer coming from Iraq now and Afghanistan than in other wars,” Biden said. “There’s been no direct scientific evidence that I’m aware of yet, but a lot of work is being done.”
During the campaign, Biden advocated for a law that would allow veterans to get treatment, and he also called on more federal research funding to study the impact of brain injuries and toxic exposures. His budget proposal this year included $87 million toward such research, with additional funding expected in future years.
Biden had been more cautious on calling for federal legislation until recently. But on Tuesday, he was unequivocal in pushing for the House bill, as well as a similar Senate measure that cleared with unanimous backing this year.
“Both of these bills have bipartisan support,” he said. “These are the bills that unite the American people. These are the bills that will deliver necessary care for veterans and their families. And let’s get those bills to my desk, so I can sign them immediately.”