'We Have a Sacred Obligation:' Biden Pledges to Help Vets Struggling with the Wounds of War

President Joe Biden Delivers State of the Union to Congress March 1, 2022.
President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)

President Joe Biden in his first State of the Union address vowed to help veterans suffering from illnesses caused by exposure to chemicals on the battlefield.

"I've always believed that we have a sacred obligation to equip all those we send to war and care for them and their families when they come home," he said.

Noting that service members in Iraq and Afghanistan inhaled fumes from burn pits that included jet fuel and trash, Biden said that "when they came home, many of the world's fittest and best trained warriors were never the same."

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"Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness," Biden continued. "A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin."

The last line elicited a heckle from Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., that Biden "put them in, 13 of them," in an apparent reference to the 13 U.S. troops killed in a suicide bombing during the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Boebert was booed by Democrats as Biden continued his speech with reference to his son’s battle with brain cancer after his own military career.

Biden's comments Tuesday night elevate the issue of toxic exposure to the American public in a forum that often sees just passing references to veterans.

As part of what he called his four-part "unity agenda" -- proposals he said should garner support from both sides of the aisle -- Biden focused on post-9/11 veterans with illnesses likely related to battlefield toxic exposures.

U.S. troops who deployed, like the president's son Beau, "faced many dangers" that included toxic smoke from waste incinerated in massive burn pits.

"We don't know for sure for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops," Biden said.

Among his new initiatives: fast-tracking access to Department of Veterans Affairs health care and disability claims for veterans diagnosed with nine rare respiratory cancers – a move that will affect about 100 veterans previously denied claims, as well as those who develop those cancers in the future.

While Beau Biden's cancer, glioblastoma, is not among them, President Biden said he was committed to "finding out everything we can."

He also called on Congress to pass a law to help sickened veterans or their survivors get expedited benefits and health care. The House is set to vote Thursday on a sweeping, $208 billion bill to do just that.

Biden highlighted the story of Danielle Robinson, whose husband, Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, deployed to Kosovo and Iraq and died of cancer at age 39.

Danielle Robinson was among the guests in the House chamber, invited by first lady Jill Biden.

"Danielle says Heath was a fighter to the very end. He didn't know how to stop fighting, and neither did she. Through her pain, she found purpose to demand we do better. Tonight, Danielle -- we are," Biden said.

This year's speech to a joint session of Congress also comes as Americans and the world watch horrors unfold in Ukraine after Russia's invasion and U.S. troops shuttle into the region to assuage jittery NATO allies worried Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue pressing west.

Biden opened his speech by commending Ukrainians' resolve in the face of Russia's brutal attack and vowing that the United States will maintain its own resolve to support Kyiv.

    Putin "thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead, he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people," Biden said in a line that elicited a bipartisan standing ovation.

    Many lawmakers in both parties were wearing yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, in another show of support for Ukraine, and Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, was in the House chamber Tuesday night as one of the first lady’s guests.

    Biden also acknowledged the thousands of U.S. troops who have been sent to countries including Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, but reiterated that no American service members will enter Ukraine itself.

    "Let me be clear, our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine," Biden said. "As I have made crystal clear, the United States and our allies will defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power."

    In running down the consequences Putin is facing for his actions, including sanctions and global isolation, Biden also ad-libbed a warning: "He has no idea what's coming."

    -- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

    -- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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