FORT WORTH, Texas (KXAN/AP) — President Joe Biden’s trip Tuesday to Fort Worth is personal. It’s a chance to talk with veterans and their caregivers and push for more help for members of the military who face health problems after exposure to burn pits.
“Secretary [Denis] McDonough has developed a new rule that’ll add several respiratory cancers to the list of presumptive conditions for certain veterans,” Biden said.
As of last year, under the Biden administration, veterans who develop asthma, rhinitis or sinusitis within 10 years of exposure can already receive disability benefits.
Denis McDonough, Texas Secretary of Veteran Affairs, said the expansion will help thousands of veterans.
“It means more than 12,500 vets are finally getting the benefits they’re owed,” McDonough said.
In last week’s State of the Union address, Biden raised the prospect of whether being near the chemicals from pits where military waste was incinerated in Iraq led to the death of his son, Beau.
“We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer or the diseases of so many of our troops,” Biden said in the speech. “But I’m committed to finding out everything we can.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday Biden would be traveling with Veterans Affairs Secretary McDonough to Texas. They visited the VA clinic in Fort Worth with remarks afterward at the Tarrant County Resource Connection on “expanding access to health care and benefits for veterans affected by exposure to harmful substances, toxins and other environmental hazards,” including those from burn pits, plots of land where the military destroyed tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials.
But linking health problems to this exposure in order to get benefits is difficult. According to NBC, the Department of Veteran Affairs has denied 75% of claims.
“I directed the VA to move quickly to review more of the cancers to provide determination on whether or not they’re presumed to be service-connected within 90 days,” Biden said.
Biden, a Democrat, will also call on Congress to send him a bill that protects veterans who face health consequences after burn pit exposure. The House last week passed a bill that would provide VA health care to millions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who meet that criteria.
Apollo Hernandez, a Marine veteran, years after his deployment, reflected on his constant exposure to chemicals.
“There are all kinds of chemicals in there — plastic bottles, carcinogens — all kinds of stuff that you probably shouldn’t be inhaling,” Hernandez said.
He worries one day, he might deal with health issues after being exposed for as long as he was.
“There are definitely veterans, that do get cancer and things like that that might have been caused by burn pits,” Hernandez said.
That’s what Biden speculates may have caused his son Beau’s cancer and death.
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 age 46.
It is difficult to link toxic exposure to an individual’s medical condition. The concentration of toxic material is often well below the levels needed for immediate poisoning. Still, the VA’s own hazardous materials exposure website, along with scientists and doctors, said military personnel do face risks and dangers after being exposed to contaminants.
Hernandez feels drawing attention to these issues is a good first step, and he’s hopeful it’ll open more doors to get veterans the help they need.
“We should we have an obligation to care for our veterans,” Hernandez said.