President Joe Biden on Tuesday said U.S. veterans were the "backbone, the spine, the sinew" of the nation, as he pushed for better help for members of the military who face health problems, including after exposure to burn pits.
"You're the best of us," Biden said.
For the president, the issue is very personal. In last week's State of the Union address, Biden raised the prospect of whether being near the chemicals from pits where military waste was incinerated in Iraq led to the death of his son Beau.
"We don't know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops," Biden said in the speech. "But I'm committed to finding out everything we can."
Biden traveled with Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough to Texas, where they visited a VA clinic in Fort Worth. There, he met with veterans, including one who was stationed near a pit and later had six weeks of treatment and chemotherapy. Biden greeted a veteran named John, who was seated in a wheelchair, asking him, "How are you?"
"Good to see you man, let me say hi to you," Biden said, walking over to shake his hand.
At the Tarrant County Resource Connection, the president was joined by about 150 people, including local elected officials and community leaders, Republican Rep. Jake Ellzey and Democratic Rep. Colin Allred.
"There is a price to be paid for every conflict we're in," said Ellzey, adding that the country had an obligation to care for veterans and the families any killed in action leave behind.
Biden begged veterans to ask for help when they need it, noting that 17 veterans die by suicide every day, more than in combat.
"They shouldn't have to ask for a damn thing," he said of veterans who suffer because of their service. "It should be, 'I've got a problem' and we should say, 'How can I help?'
"We're asking you to tell us. Tell us what your needs are. Don't be ashamed. We owe you."
He said there should be expanded access to healthcare and benefits for veterans affected by exposure to harmful substances, toxins and other environmental hazards, including those from burn pits, plots of land where the military destroyed tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials. Biden said the U.S. government made terrible mistakes during the Vietnam War, when troops returning home suffered mental health problems and physical symptoms that took years to link to Agent Orange.
He refuses to make the same mistakes with those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When our troops came home, the fittest among them ... too many of them were not the same," suffering unexplained breathing problems and other issues, he said.
"We don't know yet enough about the connection between burn pits" and the diseases veterans faced, Biden said, adding he was committed to finding out more, increasing funding to study the relationships.
"We're following the science," he said, but he urged vets to sign up for the VA burn pit registry, and make sure they know about benefits available to them.
Fort Worth City Councilmember Elizabeth Beck, deployed as a sergeant to Taji, Iraq, said she coughed every day, expelling black matter, and suspected it came from the burn pit that smoldered daily. It took her 17 years to apply for help because she couldn't bear the red tape.
"We don't want to ask for anything we don't deserve," she said of her fellow veterans. "We aren't asking for something that we shouldn't have. We are simply asking not to have to fight again."
Biden, a Democrat, also called on Congress to send him a bill that protects veterans who face health consequences after burn pit exposure. He said he'd sign it immediately. The House last week passed a bill that would provide VA healthcare to millions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who meet that criteria.
Biden's son Beau was a major in a Delaware Army National Guard unit that deployed to Iraq in 2008. The two-term Delaware attorney general was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013 and died two years later at age 46.
It is difficult to link toxic exposure to an individual's medical condition. The concentration of toxic material is often well below the levels needed for immediate poisoning. Still, the VA's own hazardous materials exposure website, along with scientists and doctors, say military personnel do face risks and dangers after being exposed to contaminants.