President Joe Biden signed legislation Wednesday that aims to support veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, a win for advocates who fought for the bill in honor of an Ohio National Guard veteran.
“We have many obligations but one truly sacred obligation: to equip those we send in harm’s way and to take care of them and their families when they come home,” Biden said. “Today we’re one step closer to fulfilling that sacred obligation.”
The new law is named for Pickerington native and former Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson who died in 2020 after battling lung cancer for three years. Robinson, a model soldier twice recognized by the guard, attributed his illness to smoke exposure from burning trash pits during his deployment to Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
Burn pit victims: New law expands VA health benefits
His wife, Danielle Robinson, attended Biden's State of the Union address earlier this year. She and her mother, Susan Zeier, have advocated for burn pit victims who were denied Veterans Administration benefits because the agency didn't believe their illnesses were service-related.
Danielle Robinson and her daughter joined Biden Wednesday as he signed the bill into law.
"Today, I want to remember Heath for the man he was,” she said. “Ours is just one story. So many veterans are still battling this burn pit illness today.”
The new law will expand eligibility for VA health benefits to burn pit victims and provide toxic exposure screenings to veterans at their medical appointments. It codifies 23 respiratory conditions and cancers as connected to burn pits, meaning veterans with those illnesses are automatically eligible for care.
The measure also increases training and research into the issue, particularly among veterans who served in the Gulf War and post-9/11.
Burn pits were often used to discard waste in Afghanistan and Iraq even though they can be more hazardous than incinerators, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Less risky products like food scraps and wood went into these pits, but so did chemicals, petroleum and weapons.
Toxins from the smoke can affect people's skin and eyes, along with their internal organs or respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
A fight for change
Despite bipartisan support for the bill, it had a rocky path to passage.
The Senate had to take up the bill twice because House lawmakers made a small change to it. The second time around, a group of GOP senators – including Sen. Rob Portman – derailed a procedural vote because they wanted to tweak a spending provision.
Zeier arrived in Washington, D.C., with her granddaughter late last month intending to celebrate the bill's passage. Instead, the trip turned into a lobbying effort after the unexpected Senate action.
She and other advocates, including comedian Jon Stewart, met with senators and camped outside the U.S. Capitol until the Senate passed the bill last week. Sen. Sherrod Brown delivered pizza to the group one day, and they fielded visits from other officials, including second gentleman Doug Emhoff.
Veterans and activists watched from the Senate gallery as lawmakers took up the final vote. It was a surreal moment for Zeier, who worked with her daughter for years to fulfill Robinson's dying wish.
She also recalled the widow of a veteran she knows in New York, who was recently denied survivor benefits but will now be able to access them.
"There’s nothing in this for us except the satisfaction that we kept our promise to Heath," Zeier told the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau. "We’re just thrilled for the families that can get the help they need right now."
Bureau reporter Titus Wu and USA TODAY contributed to this report.
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Biden signs burn pit law named for Ohio veteran Heath Robinson