President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed into law a measure to expand aid to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and other toxic elements during their service. Jon Stewart and Rep. Tom Suozzi speak about the issue. Credit: Newsday/James Carbone

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed legislation to expand health care services and other aid to millions of veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and other toxic materials during their military service.

The bipartisan PACT Act aims to remove hurdles that veterans have faced in getting care for illnesses linked to toxic elements.

The measure expands availability of health care and other services by the Department of Veterans Affairs to veterans exposed to toxic substances while serving overseas in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and in the post-9/11 era.

“When they came home some of the fittest and best warriors we sent to war were not the same,” Biden said at a bill signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed a law to expand aid to millions of military veterans exposed to toxic burn pits and other toxic materials.
  • The measure expands availability of federal health care benefits to veterans exposed to toxic substances during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and in the post-9/11 era.
  • The PACT Act establishes a list of more than 20 respiratory illnesses and cancers the Department of Veterans Affairs can presume are tied to veterans' toxic exposure.

“This is the most significant law our nation has ever passed to help millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military services,” Biden said.

“I was going to get this done come hell or high water,” he said.

Biden's son Beau died in 2015 from brain cancer that Biden on Wednesday said he believed was linked to toxic exposure during his service in Iraq as a member of the Delaware National Guard.

The new law establishes a list of more than 20 respiratory illnesses and cancers the VA can presume are tied to veterans' toxic exposure.

The measure is aimed at elimination of what many veterans say is a long and challenging process to prove their illnesses were tied to military service. 

The White House said the bill’s provisions could apply to at least 5 million service veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has said about 3.5 million U.S. military members who served overseas after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks may have been exposed to toxic chemicals during their service.

The majority of the cases are linked to burn pits, often fueled with jet fuel, that have been used to incinerate everything from sensitive computer equipment to human waste and medical waste.

New York lawmakers and activists played a significant role in pushing for the law’s passage.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pressed senators last week to pass the bill after it was nearly scuttled by a group of Senate Republicans who sought to change how provisions of the bill were funded.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) received a nod from the stage from Biden for her work on the bill.

Activist John Feal, of Nesconset, who attended the bill signing ceremony, led several delegations of veterans and 9/11 first responders to Capitol Hill to generate support for the bill.

Danielle Robinson, the wife of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, whom the law is named after, thanked Feal from the stage in the East Room.

Heath Robinson, of Ohio, a father of one, died of a rare cancer linked to his service in Iraq.

Feal, who runs the nonprofit Fealgood Foundation, which advocates on behalf of 9/11 first responders, said enacting the PACT Act was "morally right."

"We have to have a sense of humanity," Feal said. "We've got to understand that there are people that are suffering; they need our help."

Comedian Jon Stewart, who also campaigned for the bill's passage, told Newsday credit for the bill's passage belonged to "the people that are in the trenches, doing this day in and day out, whose families are affected, whose lives are affected, who are doing it just so that other of their brothers and sisters in the military don't have to go through this."

Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who co-sponsored similar bills on the burn pits issue in 2020 and 2021 and attended the ceremony, told Newsday: “People don't think Democrats and Republicans can work together. This is a good example that we did work together with the hard work of people like John Feal and Jon Stewart and so many of the veterans that have advocated for this for so many years."

He continued: "So many veterans have suffered, because of these burn pits and exposure to toxic substances in so many different ways — this is just our first obligation. Never forget the vet."

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