President Joe Biden travelled to Fort Worth, Texas on Tuesday to advocate for better health benefits and medical care for United States military veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned with chronic illnesses from exposure to burn pits.
Biden, whose son Beau Biden died in 2015 of a rare brain cancer after serving in Iraq, is calling on Congress and the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide treatment for an increasing number of veterans suffering from respiratory conditions and cancers.
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“When our troops came home, the fittest among them – the greatest fighting force in the history of the world – too many of them were not the same; headaches, dizziness, numbness, cancer,” Biden said in remarks at a VA medical clinic in Fort Worth.
“And we don’t know yet enough about the connection between burn pits and each of these diseases some of our veterans are now facing,” Biden said, adding the VA “should favour caring for our veterans while we continue to learn more, not waiting”.
Burn pits were large holes dug in the ground, some as big as a football pitch, in which trash and waste from nearby US military bases was dumped and burned sometimes with jet fuel.
The problem is reminiscent of the “Agent Orange” sickness that emerged among veterans of the Vietnam War who were exposed to the highly toxic defoliant sprayed over the country’s jungles. Burn pits were a common practice of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars that began in 2001, leaving as many as 2.5 million veterans potentially exposed.
“Basically anybody who was on the ground over there in the past 20 years was exposed to burn pits,” said Dr Victoria Cassano, an occupational physician who works with veterans suffering from chronic illnesses stemming from their military service.
“Everything and anything was burned in the burn pits and that’s why you get all these different toxins. There were so many toxins – and it varies from burn pit to burn pit – that it is not necessary or possible to determine which particular toxin causes a disease,” Cassano told Al Jazeera.
Already, more than one hundred veterans a year are dying from rare cancers and other chronic diseases believed to have been caused by exposure to airborne toxins from the burn pits, Cassano and other experts say. Many of them are young adults who should otherwise be healthy.
In Forth Worth, Biden and VA Secretary Denis McDonough are to meet with veterans suffering from exposure to environmental toxins from burn pits and will receive a briefing from VA doctors and nurses. The president is scheduled to give remarks on expanding access to care for veterans affected by exposure to harmful substances, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
The VA “is pioneering new ways of linking toxic exposures to diseases, already helping more veterans get benefits”, Biden had said in his State of the Union address to Congress last week, urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would ensure veterans get healthcare for burn pit exposure that has long been denied.
Biden’s push is giving veterans’ advocates hope that Congress and the administration will finally address a problem of delay and denial that has plagued the VA for more than a decade, said Patrick Murray, legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an association of former military service people.
“We want to take care of this now, getting people in for preventive care, getting bloodwork and getting primary care early and often to detect these things so that people aren’t showing up to the VA portending with late-stage illnesses, terrible cancers and dying,” Murray said.
“We want to catch these things early on so that people can continue to live full lives,” Murray told Al Jazeera.
The US House of Representatives passed a bill last week called the Honoring our PACT Act that seeks to reform the VA’s processes to ensure veterans get care for potential exposure to toxic chemicals. Similar legislation is pending in the Senate.
“What this legislation does, which is actually very good, is it forces the VA to get a medical opinion, if the contention is exposure to burn pits,” said Cassano.
Rosie Torres is a longtime advocate for veterans whose husband Le Roy Torres served the US Army in Iraq, became chronically ill and was forced out of his job as a Texas state trooper. Together they formed a group called Burn Pits 360 in 2010 to advocate for veterans. Now they see Congress finally prepared to act, in part because of Biden’s experience with his son Beau.
“It gives us hope,” Torres told Al Jazeera. “There are so many Beau Bidens in our community that have worked for this. And they have buried their loved ones. And it was a slow agonising death for their children, their son, their daughter, their husband, their wife. And they were all very young.”