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  • The San Juan Daily Star

‘It’s personal’: Biden highlights law helping veterans exposed to burn pits

President Joe Biden speaks during a roundtable with veterans following passage of the PACT act, at the Major Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center in New Castle, Del. on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022.

By Peter Baker

His wife, he confided, had warned him “don’t get emotional.” But anyone who knew President Joe Biden surely understood that was never going to happen.

For Biden, Friday was always going to be an emotional day. He flew to Delaware to give a speech at a military center named for his eldest son, who died more than seven years ago — an event that happened to come just two days before the 50th anniversary of the car accident that claimed the life of his first wife and baby daughter.

“It always leaves me a with a little bit of a lump in my throat,” he said of visiting the Maj. Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center, near New Castle, where he promoted a new law providing benefits for veterans suffering from exposure to burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones. Biden has long blamed the brain cancer that killed his son on toxic exposure during Beau’s own Iraq tour, although no firm connection has been established.

The purpose of the appearance was to encourage veterans to sign up for the benefits, which Biden considers one of the major achievements of his administration. He flashed passion when discussing the legislation enacted this summer. “I made it real clear to the United States Congress — if they didn’t pass this damn burn pit bill, I was going to go on holy war,” he said. “Not a joke.”

He recounted how many troops came home from war suffering from headaches, dizziness and cancer. “I remember Beau calling and saying he collapsed on a run,” he said, his voice trailing off. “It’s personal to all of us,” he added. “It’s not unique to me and my family.”

At another point, Biden raised his voice at the effects that post-traumatic stress has had on veterans. “More people have died from suicide, suicide, suicide than any other cause in the last three, five years,” he said, meaning among veterans.

Since Biden signed the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, called the Pact Act, in August, more than 185,000 veterans have applied for its benefits, according to the White House. More than 730,000 veterans have been screened for exposure, with nearly 39% reporting concern, the White House reported.

The Department of Veterans Affairs began processing claims from terminally ill veterans Monday, counting 2,500 claims in the first few days.

Biden’s speech was part of a weeklong drive to build awareness of the act, with 90 events staged across the country. “The benefits are real,” he said.

Biden’s family tragedies have long animated his political career and formed part of his public appeal, a story of loss and recovery that many could empathize with. In Friday’s speech, he did not mention Sunday’s anniversary of the death of his first wife and daughter, but their loss has been one of the enduring elements of his biography.

Neilia Biden was going Christmas shopping in Delaware with Beau, Naomi and their brother, Hunter, on Dec. 18, 1972, when their station wagon was hit by a tractor-trailer. Neilia and Naomi died, while Beau and Hunter were injured. Biden, who had just been elected to the Senate, was in Washington when he learned about the accident.

After flying back to Washington on Friday for a holiday party and to sign a bill keeping the government open for another week pending negotiations for a longer-term spending bill, Biden returned to Delaware to spend this weekend in Wilmington with family. But aides said they knew of no organized remembrance to mark the anniversary of the accident.

Beau’s death in 2015 from brain cancer, however, is a regular staple of the president’s public remarks, a way for him to connect with the nation’s military community and those who have suffered from cancer. As the president talked about the new benefits program on Friday, he reflected on the choice of venue to discuss it, named for his dead son.

“There’s no place I’d rather be today to get the message out about the Pact Act than home here and here in this particular facility,” he said.

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