President Joe Biden held a veterans town hall event in Delaware on Friday to cap a week of public events highlighting new benefits and services for former service members with toxic exposure injuries, particularly those caused by burn pits.
“I’m urging all veterans of these decades of war to enroll in VA health care to get screened for toxic exposure and to promptly file your claims,” he told a crowd of veterans and dignitaries gathered at the Maj. Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center. “The VA will move as quickly as possible to resolve your claim and to get you the benefits you’ve earned.”
They included public-service announcements from celebrities and in-person events in every U.S. state.
But Biden’s involvement in the effort lent even more emphasis to the message, and included a pledge from the commander in chief that his administration will continue to look for ways to help and thank veterans.
“We have a lot of obligations as Americans, but we all have one sacred obligation: to take care of those we send to war and care for them and their families when they come home,” he said. “I mean, and I know my colleagues mean, that from the bottom of our hearts.”
The PACT Act — passed last summer following a high-profile push for the legislation from Biden in his March State of the Union address — provides presumptive benefit status for 12 types of cancer and 12 other respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit exposure in the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq.
The presumptive benefits status allows veterans to receive disability payouts even if they can’t prove a direct link to a chemical exposure during their time in service. Because of the widespread use of the trash fires in both Iraq and Afghanistan, anyone who served in the region is considered to have been breathing in the toxins.
The measure also provides presumptive benefits status for hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) for veterans who served in Vietnam, and radiation-related illnesses for veterans who served in several new locations in the 1960s and early 1970s.
As many as one in five living veterans in America today could see new services or payouts because of the law.
But VA Secretary Denis McDonough told town hall attendees on Friday that those new benefits are only useful if veterans take advantage of them. Since the summer, more than 176,000 veterans have applied for disability benefits under the law. VA will begin processing most of those cases on Jan. 1.
“We will not rest until every single veteran and survivor knows about this new law, understands what it means for them, and gets the care and benefits they’ve earned,” he said. “That’s what our country owes you. And that’s what we will deliver to you.”
Veterans who believe they may be eligible for new health care services or benefits can visit VA.gov/PACT or call 1-800-MYVA411 (1-800-698-2411) for additional information.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.