‘Best of us’: Biden promises improved care for veterans

President Joe Biden on Tuesday said US veterans are the “backbone, backbone, tendons” of the nation as he pushed for better care for service members who face health problems, including after exposure to burn pits.

“You are the best of us,” Biden said.

For the president, this is a very personal matter. In an address to the nation last week, Biden raised the question of whether being near chemicals from military waste incineration pits in Iraq led to the death of his son Beau.

“We don’t know for sure if the burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer or the illnesses of many of our service members,” Biden said in his speech. “But I intend to find out everything we can.”

Biden traveled to Texas with Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, where they visited a veterans’ clinic in Fort Worth. There, he met with veterans, including one who was near the pit and later underwent six weeks of treatment and chemotherapy. Biden greeted a veteran named John, who was in a wheelchair, and asked him, “How are you?”

“Good to see you man, let me say hello,” Biden said as he walked over to shake his hand.

About 150 people joined the President due to Tarrant County resources, including local elected officials and community leaders, Republican Rep. Jake Ellzey, and Democratic Rep. Colin Allred.

“There is a price to pay for every conflict we are involved in,” Ellsey said, adding that the country has an obligation to care for the veterans and families that those who die in combat leave behind.

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Biden pleaded with veterans to seek help when they need it, noting that every day 17 veterans die by suicide, more than in combat.

“They don’t have to ask for a damn thing,” he said of veterans who suffer because of their service. “It should be: “I have a problem”, and we should say: “How can I help?”

“We ask you to tell us. Tell us what you need. Don’t be ashamed. We owe you.”

He said access to health care and benefits should be expanded for veterans affected by exposure to harmful substances, toxins and other environmental hazards, including from incineration pits, land where the military has destroyed tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials. Biden said the US government made terrible mistakes during the Vietnam War, when soldiers returning home suffered mental breakdowns and physical symptoms that took years to connect with Agent Orange.

He refuses to make the same mistakes with those who have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“When our soldiers returned home, the strongest of them … too many of them were not the same as before,” he said, “they had unexplained breathing problems and other problems.

“We don’t yet know enough about the connection between burning pits” and the illnesses that veterans have experienced, Biden said, adding that he is keen to learn more by increasing funding to study the relationship.

“We follow the science,” he said, but urged veterinarians to register with the Virginia Burn Pit Registry and make sure they are aware of the benefits available to them.

Fort Worth City Council member Elizabeth Beck, posted as a sergeant in Taji, Iraq, said she coughed every day as she threw out the black cloth and suspected it came from a burning pit that smoldered daily. It took her 17 years to seek help because she couldn’t bear the red tape.

“We don’t want to ask for anything we don’t deserve,” she said of her fellow veterans. “We do not ask for what we should not have. We just ask you not to fight anymore.”

Biden, a Democrat, also called on Congress to send him a bill that protects veterans who face health consequences after being exposed to a burn pit. He said he would sign it immediately. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow millions of eligible Iraqi and Afghan veterans to receive medical care through the VA program.

Biden’s son Beau was a major in a Delaware Army National Guard unit that deployed to Iraq in 2008. The two-term Delaware Attorney General was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013 and died two years later at the age of 46.

It is difficult to link toxic exposure to human health. The concentration of toxic material is often well below the level required for immediate poisoning. However, the VA’s own website on exposure to hazardous materials, along with scientists and doctors, reports that military personnel do face risks and dangers after exposure to pollutants.

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