PACT Act Takes Front and Center Among Veteran Issues in Biden's State of the Union Address on Accomplishments

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Thursday, March 7, 2024, in Washington. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)

Veterans issues played a diminished role in President Joe Biden's Thursday night State of the Union address in which he sought to sell voters on what a second term of his presidency could look like by touting the accomplishments of his first three years in office and contrasting himself to former President Donald Trump.

While Biden dedicated significant portions of his first two State of the Union speeches to veterans policy, this year's speech included just a brief mention of his biggest accomplishment so far on veterans issues: the PACT Act.

Speaking toward the end of the speech about his "unity agenda" of proposals designed to garner bipartisan support in Congress, Biden urged lawmakers to "keep our truly sacred obligation, to train and equip those we send into harm's way, and care for them and their families when they come home, and when they don't."

Read Next: Ospreys Cleared to Fly Again After Deadly Crash Despite Mechanical Failure with Unknown Cause

"That's why, with the strong support and help of [Secretary] Denis [McDonough] at the VA, I signed the PACT Act, one of the most significant laws ever, helping millions of veterans exposed to toxins who now are battling more than 100 cancers," he added. "Many of them didn't come home, but we owe them and their families support."

This year's State of the Union, a constitutional requirement for the president to periodically update Congress that has increasingly grown into a campaign-style rally, comes as the 2024 general election revs up. All of Trump's challengers in the Republican primary have dropped out as of this week, effectively making him the presumptive GOP nominee and allowing him and Biden to square off more directly.

Biden never mentioned Trump by name on Thursday but repeatedly derided "my predecessor" on issues such as NATO, the Jan. 6 insurrection, abortion and immigration.

In his first State of the Union in 2022, Biden used the speech to call on Congress to help veterans suffering from illnesses caused by toxic substances they were exposed to during their military service. The push in a forum watched by millions of Americans helped build momentum for the passage of the PACT Act, the biggest expansion of veterans benefits in a generation, later that year.

Last year, the veterans portion of Biden's speech focused on efforts to curtail veterans homelessness and suicide.

While Biden did not place as much emphasis on veterans in this year's address, Democratic lawmakers made veterans and the PACT Act a large part of their messaging ahead of the event.

More than a dozen Democrats invited veterans who have benefited from the PACT Act as their guests to the speech, including Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester of Montana, House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Mark Takano of California and House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.

Takano and other House Democrats who invited PACT Act veterans also held a news conference ahead of the address to vow that they, as Takano said, "will deliver for veterans in any way we can."

Takano and Biden also discussed the PACT Act as Biden gabbed with lawmakers on his way out of the House chamber, with Biden suggesting the law may provide some support for his son Beau's family. Beau Biden died of brain cancer that the president has said he suspects was caused by burn pits in Iraq and Kosovo.

    Meanwhile, foreign policy issues that have entangled the U.S. military took center stage in this year's speech.

    Biden used the address to formally announce that he is directing the military to build a temporary port on the coast of Gaza to increase the amount of humanitarian aid getting to Palestinians amid the brutal Israel-Hamas war there.

    Biden also touted U.S. military strikes he has ordered against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen in response to the militants' ongoing attacks against ships transiting the Red Sea. One of first lady Jill Biden's guests for the speech was Cmdr. Shelby Nikitin, the former commanding officer of the USS Thomas Hudner destroyer, which shot down Houthi drones during its recent deployment in the Red Sea.

    "As commander in chief, I will not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and military personnel," Biden said.

    During an earlier portion of the speech, Biden was heckled by a man later identified as Steve Nikoui, whose son Marine Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui was killed in the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate during the 2021 U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

    Nikoui, a guest of Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., who was one of several relatives of Abbey Gate victims invited by Republicans, shouted "Abbey Gate" and "United States Marines" before being escorted out of the House chamber by Capitol Police.

    "The sergeant at arms is holding my State of the Union guest for yelling at @POTUS in protest because his son was killed in action at the Abbey Gate due to Biden's incompetence," Mast posted on social media after the speech. "So much for the right to petition our government for the redress of grievances."

    Biden also started the speech by imploring lawmakers to pass aid to Ukraine, which has stalled in the House because of GOP opposition.

    "If anybody in this room thinks [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will stop at Ukraine, I assure you, he will not," Biden said. "My message to President Putin is simple. We will not walk away. We will not bow down. I will not bow down."

    Related: Preventing Vet Homelessness and Suicide Top Biden's State of the Union 'Unity Agenda'

    Story Continues