Remarks on Improving Health Care for Veterans Affected by Environmental Exposures in Fort Worth, Texas
Hello, everyone. Please, please, sit down. Thank you. I don't know who's coming. [Laughter]
I want to thank you, Councilwoman Beck. You know, look, what I said to her on the way out: The thing that bothers me the most when veterans aren't looked out for, because of what we owe them, is every single, solitary veteran deserves to be treated with dignity. They shouldn't have to ask for a damn thing. It shouldn't be, "Can you help me?" It's, "I've got a problem," and we should say, "How can we help?"
And so I thank you for your service. I thank you for—all of you who are here for your service. And I hope that hearing you will inspire more veterans to do exactly what you're doing: sign up. Sign up for the benefits and support you have earned.
What I found with my son, what I found with my friends, what I found with the generation of Vietnam: There's this notion that you never have to—you never—you shouldn't ask for anything. You're military. You don't ask for anything; you just serve.
You should be asking. You should be letting us know. You should let us know what is bothering you, what is the problem, because we owe it to you.
It's great to be here in Fort Worth at the Resource Connection. And I'm able to spend time with Mayor Parker earlier, very briefly. And I want to thank her for the passport into town. And I also want to thank Judge Whitley, all—and all the city and council members—city council and county council members as well here today. I want to thank you.
I often tell the story: I got elected to the county council in my State. We have a—we're like a miniature Illinois. We have one State with 60 percent of the population, so a councilman has a district seven times as big as a House member and three times a big as a State senator.
And I did not want to run, but I ran just to show the flag. And unfortunately, I won. [Laughter] And they reapportioned me. It was in 1970. I got reapportioned from a 4-year term to a 2-year term because my—the opposition party saw more in me than I saw in me. And I was forced into, what we say in public life, "up or out." And I ended up running for the Senate before I was old enough to be sworn in. I didn't expect to win that either. And here I am. You're stuck with me. [Laughter]
But the reason I ran for the United States Senate—it was too hard being a county councilman. You'd knock on the door and say, "My name is Joe Biden, Democratic candidate for the county council." And they'd look at you like—and you know what they were thinking. Well, you know part of what they were thinking—[laughter]—"What's the county council do?" [Laughter] Well, you affect people's lives as much as anybody else. And people go, "County council?"
Anyway. But I just think that—Jake, you're a fighter pilot. You get this stuff. I mean—you know what I mean. You can smile, Jake. It's okay. [Laughter] It's okay. Jake's a Republican, but I like the hell out of him. He's got—[laughter]—no, I'm serious. This guy's the real deal.
The three Congressmen you have here—two of them look like they could—they really could and did play ball. And the other one looks like he could bomb you. [Laughter] And that's—it's a tough group, but a good group.
Look, I want to thank you and your staffs for welcoming us to town. It's a one-stop shop connection for people in this county to the services and benefits they need. And that's important. And I'm here today to talk about the critical community it serves: our veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.
I'm joined today by the bipartisan group of Texas Reps that are here and who care deeply about these issues. Congressman Marc Veasey is—I want to thank him so much for giving me the passport into his district here. And I want to let them know how proud I am to sign into law the bill to create a national monument to Medal of Honor winners and recipients and the values they represented. It was a very important thing you did.
And, Congressman Colin Allred, I want to thank you for your work in the Veterans Affairs committee in the House of Representatives, particularly your leadership dealing with veterans mental health issues.
And Congressman Jake Ellzey, a member of the House Veterans Committee, a veteran himself, served 20 years in the United States Navy, multiple combat tours as well.
Congressmen, thank you all for being here and for allowing me to be with you and continuing to serve our country.
You know, I've often said—and I mean it sincerely, from the bottom of my heart—veterans are the backbone, the spine, the sinew of who we are in this country. One percent of you these days—1 percent of you—serves all the rest of us. And the 99 percent who aren't with you deserve to treat you with the dignity and respect in service that you deserve. You're the best of us, and we owe you.
And I've always believed that—and I've said this from the time I was a young Senator—we have many obligations in the United States Senate and the United States Congress, the President of the United States, to the American people: to the elderly, to the poor, to those in need. But we only have one truly sacred obligation, and I mean this—sacred obligation: that is to train and equip those who we send into harm's way and care for them and their families when they come home.
Only a small percentage, as I said, deserve and can claim the title of veteran. More than 1.4 million of them are living here in Texas. That's about 6.5 percent of your population. And to be a veteran is to have endured the survival—and survived challenges most Americans will never know. And you have done it, and you've done it for all of us. All of us.
A week ago, during my State of the Union message in Washington, I spoke about the bipartisan unity agenda. Four big things that I think all of us—Democrats, Republicans, Independents—can agree on and rally around. One is dealing with the opioid epidemic, which is stealing the lives of so many people. Two: mental health for our children in the wake of all that's happened because of COVID and all the consequences. There's over a million people out there who are no longer sitting at the kitchen table this morning because of COVID. And people worry about that, and the kids particularly. Third is ending cancer as we know it, which I'm confident we can do. And fourth is supporting our veterans, fully supporting them.
These are the issues that unite us because they impact Americans in every single solitary State, issues that go beyond partisan politics because they're about people—about people, our neighbors.
Caring for our veterans has been a central focus of my administration since day one. And for the last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs, led by Secretary McDonough, has been the linchpin—the linchpin of our Governmentwide push to make life better for American veterans, providing assistance through this pandemic like job training and housing.
We're helping lower income veterans access VA care debt-free. We're expanding access to health care services for women veterans and the LGBTQ-community veterans.
We're implementing a plan to bring down the rate of suicide among servicemembers and veterans. You know, it's sad to say, but to this day, we average 17 veterans a day commit suicide—every single day. More than get killed in combat—every single day. It's an absolute tragedy that demands not only a whole-of-Government approach, but a whole-of-country working together to deal with this issue. Texas is one of those States participating in the Governor's and Mayor's Challenge to take on this crisis.
And as I announced in my State of the Union message, we're focusing on meeting the specific care and needs for all our veterans who suffer because of their service—for all our veterans.
We learned a horrible lesson after Vietnam. It was harm—the harmful effects of Agent Orange, which was dropped upon so many thousands of veterans, and the years it took to manifest illnesses in veterans. Because then the veteran had to prove that whatever his problem was, was directly a consequence of Agent Orange.
Well, we passed a law that I was proud to be a cosponsor of a long time ago saying that if you were—if you had Agent Orange dropped upon you, it was presumed that the illness you had was a consequence of that.
And how we were even slower to connect the dots of what's happening to those too many Vietnam veterans living in the lurch, unable to access the care they needed. It was only in the past year that we added bladder cancer and conditions of underactive thyroid and Parkinson's to the list of conditions tied to Agent Orange exposure, as science told us more, decades after the exposure took place.
It took far too long to reach that decision, in my view. And I refuse to repeat the mistake when it comes to the veterans of our Iraq and Afghans—Afghan wars.
Not only they—they faced the dangers on battlefield, but they were breathing toxic smoke in burn pits where they're—near where they were based. I was in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq 23 times. I spent a fair amount of time there as a United States Senator and as Vice President. The burn pits that incinerate wastes of war—medical and hazardous materials, jet fuel, and so much more—just dug in big pits where—not far from the hooches, not far from where our veterans were sleeping.
And when our troops came home, the fittest among them, the greatest fighting force in the history of the world, too many of them were not the same. Headaches, dizziness, numbness, dizziness, cancer.
And we know—we don't know yet enough about the connection between burn pits and each of these diseases so many of our veterans are now facing. But I'm committed—I'm committed—that America make the commitment to find out everything we can. I'm committed to the families like Danielle Robinson, the widow of Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, who joined my wife Jill in the Vice—in the First Lady's box at the State of the Union.
Sergeant Robinson was born a soldier. National—Army National Guard. Combat medic in Kosovo and Iraq. Stationed at the same bases and at around the same exact time as my son Major Beau Biden, United States Army.
In Baghdad, Sergeant Robinson was stationed yards from burn pits the size of football fields. And back home in Ohio, Danielle and their little girl waited for him to come home: to coach the soccer team, to build Legos. But when he finally came home, cancer, likely caused—prolonged exposure to the burn pits, ravaged his lungs and his body.
A soldier who could bench press 315 pounds, squat 400 pounds, and run 2 miles in 12 minutes would be bent over in the bathroom, gasping for air. And Danielle, working full time, turned to become a 24/7 caregiver, scared to leave him alone for even a minute.
He was just 39 years old when he was held—she held his hand as he took his last breath. But Daniel said he—Danielle said he never stopped fighting, and neither did she. She kept fighting for his memory, in his memory—for our veterans and their families that are going through the same thing today.
Families like hers, like so many of yours—you're the reason why we're doing everything we can. We've increased funding for VA research to study the health effects of toxic exposure in the military. We're speeding up the process to identify and address an—adverse impacts of military-related environmental exposure.
We're following the science in every case, but we're also not going to force veterans to suffer in limbo for decades if the science is even—even if it's evenly divided. When the evidence doesn't give a clear answer one way or another, the decision we should favor is caring for veterans while we continue to learn more, not waiting—not waiting. So I directed the VA to move quickly to review more of the cancers and provide determinations of whether or not they are presumed to be service connected within 90 days.
And by the way, you saw what happened in the—what happened when—at 9/11 when the buildings went down in New York. You saw the thousands of firefighters who, in fact, were—because of the toxic smoke they inhaled—finally, finally, because some of the people in the media and in entertainment insisted that they be compensated for.
Well, when diseases are so rare that there isn't enough evidence, we'll examine other factors as well. And this week, Secretary McDonough is developing a new rule that will add several rare respiratory cancers to the list of presumptive conditions for certain veterans.
We also need to know more about which of our veterans may have been exposed to burn pits in the first place or other environmental toxins during their service, to record possible exposures before servicemembers separate from the military. So we're building a more comprehensive database from the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs to use to track access to exposures.
We're working hard to educate everyone across the VA system about the potential impact of specialized care needed for burn pit exposure, urging veterans to sign up for the VA Burn Pit Registry and to make sure we know about them—they know about the benefits that may be available to them.
You know, what I've found about veterans as we worked for those who are trying to deal with the mental health problems, is they're used to always giving. You don't think you have a right to ask for anything. You don't think you have a right to ask. We're asking you—asking you to tell us. Tell us where you've been. Tell us what your needs are. Nothing to be ashamed of; it's to be proud of. We owe you.
Improving training for VA providers to make sure they're equipped to diagnose and treat exposures to related conditions. And this year, launching a new network of special care—specialized care providers and call centers to help connect veterans with questions about exposure to care that's consistent, comprehensive, and high quality.
Folks, these are the kinds of steps that can make a difference in getting the proper care for more patients and providing support for veterans, especially those facing cancer diagnosis.
And every one of you know the earlier cancer is diagnosed, the greater the prospect of dealing with it, the greater the prospect of curing it.
It reinforces the new goal of my Cancer Moonshot to cut cancer deaths—the death rate by 50 percent over the next 25 years at a minimum, to create more supportive experience for all the patients and families.
Secretary McDonough is part of my newly formed Cancer Cabinet. The Department of Veterans Affairs is an essential part of our whole-of-Government initiative because we're going to invest billions of dollars solving this problem, to turn cancers from death sentences into treatable diseases.
These are all the things my administration is moving on. We're not waiting. We're not waiting. But some of the most important next steps need congressional action. Both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate have bills in motion that would extend eligibility period for VA care for burn pit-related health impacts from 5 years after leaving the military to a minimum of 10 years. That would open enrollment to all veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And, in February, the Senate passed their bill to do just that, unanimously, Democrat and Republican. And the House bill that passed just last week would do even more: expanding health care, mandating research, reforming the process for determining presumptions, and adding more conditions to the list of presumptive care.
Both of these bills have bipartisan support. These are the bills that unite the American people. These are the bills that will deliver necessary care for our veterans and their families. Let's get those bills to my desk so I can sign them immediately—immediately.
Folks, we have a sacred obligation as a nation. I promised Danielle Robinson, and I promise all of you here today, that we'll do better. We must. We owe you. We owe you.
I can't say enough about the veterans community. And there's a famous expression by a famous English poet who said, "They also serve who only stand and wait." To every husband and wife of the deployed—of the deployed husband or wife, to every child with a mom or dad deployed: We owe you. We owe you, because they also serve who only stand and wait.
I remember the head of the National Guard in the State of Delaware—wife used to say a prayer. When my son got deployed—my wife was a school teacher who got up earlier than I did to get to school. I'd get to the train, the 7:30 train. And I'd walk downstairs. I wouldn't be—I'd just be—I'd just had shaved and have my trousers on to get a cup of coffee. She'd be standing over the sink, like many of you have done, looking out the window mouthing a prayer that she was given by the commander's wife; a prayer, a prayer for her son who was in harm's way.
All of you did that. All of you do that. All of you worry about that call. So thank you. Thank you as well.
Concluding point I'll make—and we talked about it, the Congressman and I, on the way down: You know, this is an incredible generation, the 9/11 generation that fought. They served in a way, I think, that maybe they're right up there with the Greatest Generation, because they not only got deployed once, but sometimes twice, three, four times into harm's way.
They'd come home and go back, and after knowing that they cleaned off the blood of the seat of that up-armored Humvee that they were in, where they lost somebody. And they'd have to saddle up and go back out again. An enormous generation. An incredible generation.
I was telling the guys on the way down, I remember flying into Iraq one of those times, and I went up in the cockpit. And there were, I believe, seven members—six members: five men and one women—one woman. And I asked the question of all of them. I said, "How many is this your first tour of duty?" Nobody raised their hand. "Second tour of duty?" Nobody. "Third tour?" Two of them. "Fourth tour?" Two of them. "Fifth tour?" One.
No other generation has been deployed, redeployed, and redeployed and redeployed. It takes nothing away from the World War I and World War II and Vietnam generations. But it's one thing to serve and come home and then go back and go back and go back.
So we owe you. We owe you all, every veteran in here and every family member of a veteran.
May God bless you all, and may God protect our troops. Thank you for all you do.
NOTE: The President spoke at 4:05 p.m. at the Resource Connection of Tarrant County. In his remarks, he referred to District 9 City Councilmember and Iraq war veteran Elizabeth M. Beck, who introduced the President, and Mayor Mattie Parker of Fort Worth, TX; County Judge B. Glen Whitley of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court; Brielle Robinson, daughter of Columbus, OH, resident Danielle Robinson; and Maj. Gen. Francis D. Vavala (Ret.), former adjutant general, Delaware National Guard, and his wife Jane. He also referred to H.R. 1664, which was approved December 27, 2021, and assigned Public Law No. 117-80; and S. 3541 and H.R. 3967.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on Improving Health Care for Veterans Affected by Environmental Exposures in Fort Worth, Texas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/354818