In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Joe Biden insisted that Republicans and Democrats can work together on major issues, noting that in 2022 “we came together to pass the most significant law ever helping victims exposed to toxic burn pits.”
But the phrase was recorded as “toxic bird pits” on some closed captioning systems, prompting social media searches on the phrase and a New York Times article on Friday asking if bird pits were “some major news story” that their staff had missed.
While some of the misunderstanding appears intentionally politically motivated — conservatives on Twitter targeted Biden for his unclear pronunciation of some words and phrases — it also underscores the continued disconnect between the American public and the veteran community, for which burn pits have been a major focus for more than a decade.
The Department of Defense has estimated nearly 3.5 million troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may have suffered enough exposure to the smoke to cause health problems.
The burn pits — some as large as several football fields — were used to dispose of a host of waste products, including surplus equipment, batteries and human excrement. Veterans groups fought for years for recognition from the Department of Veterans Affairs that the smoke is responsible for a host of rare cancers and respiratory illnesses.
Biden highlighted the issue in his 2022 State of the Union address, calling on Congress to pass legislation addressing the issue. In late summer, they passed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act), which includes expanded benefits for both burn pit smoke victims and tens of thousands of other veterans.
As of the end of January, nearly 277,000 veterans had applied for benefits through the new law.
Biden has said that his interest in the burn pit issue is personal: His son, Beau, served in Iraq with the Delaware Army National Guard and died in 2015 from a rare brain cancer. He and others believe there was a link between that illness and burn pits near where Beau served.
Advance copies of the speech and follow-up transcripts clearly recorded Biden’s words as “toxic burn pits.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has set up a page dedicated to education about burn pits and other military toxic exposure issues on its website.
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.