On his first Veterans Day in office, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered his administration Thursday to provide better medical treatment for veterans exposed to toxic air and to study the diseases they may have contracted while serving overseas.
For years, American service members were exposed to open-air fire pits during tours of duty in Iraqi and Afghan war zones. Dangerous materials such as electronics, vehicles and human waste were routinely sprayed with jet fuel and set ablaze, spewing toxic fumes and carcinogens into the air.
For Biden, the directive is personal. He has suggested, without proof, that the cancer that killed his son Beau in 2015 was linked to exposure to burn pits during his military deployment to Iraq.
"He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go," Biden said at a Service Employees International Union convention in 2019. "And because of exposure to burn pits, in my view, I can't prove it yet, he came back with stage 4 glioblastoma."
Biden laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington on Thursday to honor U.S. veterans. In a short address, he said retired veterans and those who are serving now are "the spine of this country."
"We've asked so much of you for so long," he said. "Our country is grateful."
He urged veterans who are struggling with medical problems or thoughts of suicide to reach out for help.
The new studies related to toxins will initially center on lung problems suffered by troops exposed to contaminated air and the potential connection to rare respiratory cancers, according to senior White House officials, but will expand as possible links to other ailments are identified.
In August, the Department of Veterans Affairs began processing claims for veterans suffering from asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis based on exposure to the pits. New rules will allow veterans to make claims within 10 years of their service and change what symptoms count and why.
"Exposure to contaminants and environmental hazards poses a major health concern for veterans of all generations," the White House said. But it added, "There are also gaps and delays in the scientific evidence demonstrating conclusive links between known exposures and health impacts, leaving many veterans without access to Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and high-quality treatment to address significant health conditions."
The White House said it took decades for the government to compensate Vietnam-era veterans for their exposure to Agent Orange.
"For the newest generation of veterans, concerns about burn pits and other exposures continue to mount," it said.
Veterans Day in the U.S. is commemorated on November 11 to honor everyone who served in the U.S. armed forces. It originally was called Armistice Day, to mark the end of World War I.