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Biden signs bill to aid veterans exposed to toxins from burn pits

President Joe Biden signed into law S. 3373, the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promises to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022, as Danielle Robinson and Brielle Robinson, Heath Robinson’s surviving wife and daughter look on at the White House in Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (Leigh Vogel/The New York Times)LEIGH VOGEL/NYT

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Wednesday signed into law bipartisan legislation to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling it a long-overdue step toward fulfilling the country’s ‘’truly sacred obligation’' of caring for its veterans.

‘’This is the most significant law our nation has ever passed to help millions of veterans who are exposed to toxic substances during their military services,’’ Biden said. ‘’I was going to get this done, come hell or high water.’’

The bill, known as the ‘’Pact Act,’’ dramatically expands the benefits and services for veterans exposed to such toxins, mainly in the two wars, who may develop injuries and illnesses that take years to manifest themselves. Those realities often made it difficult for veterans to establish a direct connection between their service and disabilities, preventing them from getting the care they needed, the White House said in a statement.

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The bill’s signing is a significant achievement for Biden, who has long spoken of the country’s duty to care for its veterans after they return home. He has occasionally invoked the 2015 death of his son Beau of a glioblastoma while wondering whether that cancer was linked to his son’s exposure to burn pits during his service in the Iraq War. In his first State of the Union address, Biden called on Congress to pass burn pits legislation.

At Wednesday’s bill signing ceremony, Biden was introduced by Danielle and Brielle Robinson, the wife and daughter of the late US Army Sergeant 1st Class Heath Robinson, whose name is part of the longer, formal title of the legislation.

‘’I’m just in awe of your family’s courage,’’ Biden told the Robinsons. ‘’I really mean that. Through the pain, you found purpose to demand that we do better as a nation. And today, we are.’’

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Danielle Robinson recalled how her husband’s return home from Iraq turned from a relief to ‘’the biggest nightmare of our lives’' after Heath Robinson was diagnosed with terminal Stage 4 lung cancer 10 years later.

‘’Ours is just one story,’’ she said. ‘’So many military families have had to fight this terrible emotional battle. So many veterans are still battling burn pit illnesses. Today, too many have succumbed to those illnesses, as well.’’

The bill signing came nearly six years after Biden began pushing for the issue toward the end of his vice presidency. In a congressional conference room, he referred to a book he had recently read — one that tied toxic burn pits to which Beau Biden had been exposed during his military service to his son’s subsequent death of brain cancer — and remarked, ‘’Guys, I’m going to be the biggest pain in your neck as long as I live, until we figure out about these burn pits.’’

Biden in the past has raised the possibility that his son’s cancer was partly the result of exposure to toxic chemicals during his service in Iraq and Kosovo, but he also has said that it is unclear. In a January 2018 interview with PBS’s Judy Woodruff, Biden said he thought burn pits played a ‘’significant role’' in his son’s cancer but added that ‘’there’s been no direct scientific evidence that I’m aware of yet.’’

‘’Because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can’t prove it yet — he came back with Stage 4 glioblastoma,’’ he said in October 2019 during a presidential campaign event.

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But at the White House on Wednesday, he was far more direct. At one point, Biden briefly addressed young Brielle Robinson, pointing out that she was sitting next to his grandson, Beau Biden’s son.

‘’His daddy, lost to the same burn pits,’’ Biden remarked.

‘’Many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same,’’ he added later. ‘’Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer. My son Beau was one of them.’’

Biden pointed again to his grandson and other relatives in the room, adding: ‘’To us and to many of you in the room, if not all of you, it’s personal. Personal.’’

The Pact bill enjoyed broad bipartisan support but encountered an unexpected delay last month after the stunning news of a deal between Sen. Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and Democratic leaders on the Inflation Reduction Act. Shortly after that announcement, 25 Republicans who had recently supported the same bill switched their votes on the Pact Act in an apparent effort to deny Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, another legislative win.

Republicans tried for several days to contend that their blockage of the pact had to do with a technical argument about which portion of the federal budget would fund $280 billion worth of new allocations for veterans health programs. But the GOP absorbed a series of political blows, led by comedian Jon Stewart and several prominent veterans groups, which in vigils and protests accused Republicans of using veterans as political pawns.

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By the following week, many Republicans were ready to settle the matter, and on Aug. 2, the Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill on an 86-11 vote.

On Wednesday, Biden thanked advocates including Rosie Torres — a co-founder of the nonprofit Burn Pits 360 — and Stewart for their work pushing for the legislation.

‘’What you’ve done, Jon, matters,’’ Biden said. ‘’It really, really matters. You refused to let anybody forget, refused to let them forget. And we owe you big, man.’’