US President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed into law a bill that expands health care and benefits to veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances, particularly during the Iraq and Afghan wars.
“This is the most significant law our nation has ever had passed to help millions of veterans who are exposed to toxic substances during their military service,” said Mr Biden. “I was going to get this done come hell or high water.”
The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honouring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or “Pact Act”, passed Congress after facing Republican opposition in the Senate. It was named after veteran Heath Robinson, who died of a rare cancer two years ago after exposure to toxic burn pits on deployment in Iraq.
His widow Danielle and daughter Brielle were among those at the White House ceremony as Mr Biden signed the bill into law. Brielle was given the pen that cemented her father's name into veterans' health care history.
“Ours is just one story. So many military families who had to fight this terrible emotional battle. So many veterans are still battling burn pit illnesses today,” Ms Robinson said.
Mr Biden's own family was affected. The President lost his veteran son Beau to brain cancer, and spoke directly to Brielle, who sat beside the president's grandson.
“I know you miss your daddy, but he's with you all the time,” said Mr Biden.
Washington's Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA) called the Pact Act “the largest health care and benefit expansion in VA history”.
The law expands VA health care eligibility to 9/11 combat veterans, which includes more than 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans, and adds 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions to the department's list of service presumptions.
“Thank you to all of the veterans, survivors and family members who fought tirelessly to make this day possible, and thank you to President Biden for keeping our nation’s promise to those who served,” the department's Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement after the signing.
“We at VA will stop at nothing to make sure that every veteran and every survivor gets the Pact Act-related care and benefits they deserve.”
Comedian and activist Jon Stewart, who lobbied on Capitol Hill to pass the Pact Act, was among those in the audience. Mr Biden acknowledged Mr Stewart's activism.
“We owe you big, man,” said Mr Biden.