▶ Watch Video: Biden offers bipartisan “Unity Agenda” in State of the Union address

Washington — President Biden on Tuesday used his first State of the Union address to issue a call to action for Congress to do more to assist veterans experiencing enduring health issues after exposure to burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, elevating a matter that hits close to home for him.

Mr. Biden raised the long-term harms to veterans who were exposed to burn pit smoke while deployed overseas as he laid out his four-pronged so-called “unity agenda,” which included enhanced support for veterans.

“Veterans are the backbone and the spine of this country. They’re the best of us,” the president said. “I’ve always believed that we have a sacred obligation to equip those we send to war, and care for those and their families when they come home.”

Noting that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced many dangers, Mr. Biden lamented that among them was the toxic smoke from burn pits — where waste materials were disposed of — and other pollution that were breathed in by service members.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, center, listen during a State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. 


“And they come home, many of the world’s fittest and best-trained warriors in the world, never the same,” he said. “Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin.”

The president then spoke of his late son Beau Biden, who died in 2015 from brain cancer. A major in the Army National Guard, Beau Biden deployed to Iraq for a year in 2009. While Mr. Biden warned he is not certain a burn pit caused his son’s brain cancer, or the diseases that have afflicted many other service members, he committed during his address to “find out everything we can.”

In addition to noting the work at the Department of Veterans of Affairs developing new ways of tying toxic exposure to disease, the president announced his administration is expanding eligibility to benefits for veterans suffering from nine respiratory cancers believed to be linked to the toxins from burn pits.

Mr. Biden also urged Congress to pass legislation ensuring veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and face lasting health issues stemming from the toxic exposures receive benefits and comprehensive health care.

House members will be holding a news conference on Wednesday on veterans burn pit legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Jon Stewart, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chair Mark Takano of California and Congressman Raul Ruiz of California are among those expected to attend.  

The president often draws on his memories of Beau Biden during public speeches and spoke of his late son’s exposure to burn pits on the campaign trail in 2020. As a candidate, Mr. Biden laid out a plan to assist veterans exposed to burn pits or other toxins and boost research funds to better understand the impact of traumatic brain injury and toxic exposures on long-term health outcomes.

A 2019 report from the Defense Department stated there were nine active military burn pits in the Middle East as of 2018. A 2015 report from a Pentagon inspector general said it was “indefensible” that military personnel were “put at further risk from the potentially harmful emissions” from the use of burn pits.