President Biden on Friday delivered a series of emotional remarks that were centered on new benefits available to veterans who have been exposed to toxic chemicals, but also focused on his own personal experiences and channeled moral outrage that the country hasn’t always lived up to its “sacred obligation” of caring for its troops. The remarks were given at a National Guard facility named after his late son, whose death Biden has come to believe was a result of his military service near toxic burn pits in Kosovo and Iraq.
The visit to the Major Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center in New Castle, Del., is part of more than 90 events that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been holding around the country to encourage veterans to utilize new benefits available to them as a result of a law Biden signed in August.
“I must tell you, I ride by this building a lot,” Biden said of a spot he travels past arriving and departing on Air Force One. “It always leads into a little bit of a lump in my throat.”
Biden at times grew angry that more was not done faster to help veterans who had returned home from battle with lingering health problems they attributed to serving near toxic waste sites.
“ I made it real clear the United States Congress, if they didn’t pass this damn burn pit bill, I was going to go on holy war,” he said. “Not a joke.”
He was joined by a number of state and federal officials, including Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough. Biden in his remarks emphasized the far-reaching impacts that burn pits have had on veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.
He and McDonough also highlighted the care veterans can receive, such as additional screenings, as well as assistance available for surviving families impacted by toxic exposures.
Biden signed the law, known as the Pact Act, to dramatically expand benefits and services for veterans exposed to toxins, mainly in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who may develop injuries and illnesses that take years to manifest themselves.
“I’m no doctor, but it’s pretty clear. A lot of guys and women getting sick,” Biden said on Friday.
The bill’s signing was a signature accomplishment for Biden, who has long spoken of the country’s duty to care for its veterans after they return home. He has also occasionally invoked the 2015 death of his son Beau of a glioblastoma while wondering whether that cancer was linked to his son’s exposure to burn pits during his service in the Iraq War. In his first State of the Union address as president, Biden called on Congress to pass burn pits legislation.
“We’re determined, we’re determined to do something about this come hell or high water,” he said, specifically thanking Jon Stewart for raising public awareness and activism around the issue.
“Many when they came home had gone the best trained, fittest warriors in the world and came home with headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer,” he added. He noted how Beau once called saying he had collapsed on a run.
Since Biden signed the law on Aug. 10, more than 185,000 veterans have applied for benefits related to it, according to the White House. More than 730,000 veterans have also received new toxic exposure screenings. About 2,500 of the claims were filed by veterans who self-identified as terminally ill.
“It’s one of the most significant laws in our history to help millions of veterans who are exposed to toxic substances during their military service,” Biden said.
Biden during the event on Friday also told a harrowing story about a member of the military who objected to having him pin a medal on him because one of his friends died in battle.
But just as he has before, Biden got a number of details wrong.
While Biden said it occurred in Iraq, it was actually in Afghanistan. He said he was asked to pin a Silver Star, but it was a Bronze Star. He claimed that the medal was awarded for going into a ravine and climbing about 150 feet up a hill. But the medal was actually awarded to a soldier who went into a burning vehicle to save his dying friend.
Biden told the anecdote at an event for veterans, focusing on their heroism and selflessness.
“In Vietnam — excuse me, in Iraq, I was up on the one of the points,” he said. “The [commanding officer] asked me if I would pin on a Silver Star because a young man on one of these points had one of his colleagues shot, fell down about, I guess, the equivalent of — I was out there at the point. It was, I guess, about 150 feet, not straight down, but a hill.”
“And this young man climbed down the hill, put a guy on his shoulder, and brought him back up and was shot at on the way up,” he continued. “And he got there and I went to present it to him, too. And he said, ‘I don’t want it. I don’t want it. He died. He died.’”
Biden told a similar version of that story during his presidential campaign in 2019. The Post, based on interviews with more than a dozen U.S. troops, their commanders, and Biden aides, reported at the time that it appeared as though Biden had jumbled elements of at least three actual events into one story that never happened.
The service member who performed the celebrated rescue that Biden described — going down a ravine and carrying someone back up amid gunfire — was Kyle J. White. At a White House ceremony in 2014, White stood at attention as President Barack Obama placed a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, around his neck.
One element of Biden’s story is rooted in an actual event: In 2011, the then-vice president did pin a medal on a heartbroken soldier, Army Staff Sgt. Chad Workman, who didn’t believe he deserved the award.
“I tried to get out of going,” Workman recalled in a 2019 interview. “I didn’t want that medal.”
Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.