WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday, President Joe Biden visited Texas to advocate for better benefits for veterans who have suffered from health problems after being exposed to burning pits during wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After announcing last week during the State of the Union speech, Biden visited Fort Worth as the first stop on his "unity Agenda" tour, he said that his administration would focus on four key issues -- the opioid crisis, mental health support, veterans, and ending cancer -- which it believed Republicans and Democrats could both address.
"Every single veteran deserves dignity." The president stated Tuesday that they shouldn't have any reason to ask for anything.
Biden's shift in focus to domestic issues comes as his social safety net and economic bill, Build Back Better, remains in Congress. His approval hovers at below 50 percent before the midterm elections. This is worrying for some Democrats who fear that their party may lose their narrow majority in the House or Senate as voters head to the polls next November.
Biden spoke in a Tarrant County Resource Connection gymnasium. He outlined the actions that his administration has taken to improve veterans' health care, but also stated that Congress must take the next steps.
Last week, the House approved a bill that had bipartisan support. It would significantly increase health care services and disability benefits to veterans who were exposed to fire pits in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Some Republicans think the House measure is too costly and it is not clear whether the 50-50 Senate will approve it. The Senate passed in February a narrower bill that extended the time combat veterans can be provided care by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"Both of these bills are supported by bipartisans. These are the bills that unify the American people. These are the bills that will provide the needed care for our veterans, and their families," Biden stated. "We have to get these bills on my desk immediately so that I can sign them."
Biden stated that the federal government was too slow in connecting the dots between Agent Orange and certain diseases following the Vietnam War and that he would not make the same mistake with veterans who were exposed at burn pits during the post-9/11 wars.
Biden stated, "When our troops returned home... too many of their characteristics were different." "Numbness, dizziness, cancer."
Biden is personally involved in this matter. Beau Biden, his son, was deployed to Iraq in 2008. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013. At 46 years old, he passed away. Biden believes Beau's cancer may have been caused by his exposure to burn pits while he was deployed.
Experts agree that it's difficult to establish a link between exposure to burn pits and certain health conditions like asthma and cancer, but long-term exposure can cause serious health problems.
Biden stated that not enough information is available about the link between burn pits, diseases and veterans' health issues. However, he said that his administration was committed to finding out all that it could.
He stated that while we are following all cases, we don't intend to make veterans suffer in limbo for many decades. "When there is no clear evidence, we should choose to care for our veterans as we learn more."
Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary, stated that Biden visited Texas because Texas is home to the country's second-largest veteran population. Psaki claimed that 55 percent of them served in areas with burn pits.
Psaki stated that the visit allowed Biden to travel alongside a bipartisan group. Representatives Colin Allred and Marc Veasey from Texas, as well as Rep. Jake Ellzey (a Texas Republican), traveled with Biden on Air Force One.
Biden stated Tuesday that "Jake is a Republican, but he's my favorite,"
Before his speech, the president was joined by Secretary Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough. He visited Fort Worth with veterans.
During the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, burn pits were used to dispose of garbage, including vehicle parts and human waste. The pits were set on fire with jet fuel, releasing toxic fumes into air.
According to the Department of Defense, approximately 3.5 million service personnel could have been exposed. However, getting treatment can be complicated because veterans must prove that there is a direct link between their medical conditions and military service.
The Department of Veterans Affairs denied about 75% of veteran's burn pit claims.
Last year, the Biden administration announced that soldiers who were exposed to burn pits and developed asthma, rhinitis, or sinusitis within a period of 10 years could be eligible for disability benefits.
Biden also directed the VA's investigation of burn pit exposure and rare cancers. He supported expanding the list of conditions the VA would consider to be caused by toxic burn pit exposure.