Just minutes after President Joe Biden signed legislation that gives thousands of sick post-9/11 veterans better access to health care and disability benefits, Sri Benson worked his way to the commander in chief and slipped him a Ziploc baggie containing a note and a photo of an Army soldier.
That soldier, Sri's wife Katie, died July 9 at age 36 of mesothelioma, believed to be tied to her military service in Kuwait. Biden took the bag, embraced Sri and whispered in his ear.
"I told him my wife's final words, and he gave me his son's," Benson said in an interview following the signing of the Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT, Act, Wednesday at the White House. "It was special."
Inside the story: Burn Pits and the Fight to Get Help
For veterans, advocates and loved ones of service members who died of exposure-related illnesses, the signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House marked the culmination of decades of work to attain recognition, health care and benefits for troops sickened by burn pits, pollution, radiation, chemicals and other deployment-related health hazards.
Biden said the bill fulfills a promise he made when he took office, meeting a "sacred obligation" to get veterans needed benefits and care.
"These conditions have already taken such a toll on so many veterans and their families," Biden said, referring to 23 illnesses that the new law designates as service-connected diagnoses, making those afflicted eligible for expedited health care and disability compensation.
The legislation is the most significant expansion of veterans health care and benefits since approval of the Agent Orange Act more than 30 years ago.
During the ceremony, veterans who were exposed to burn pits and their survivors packed the room, including Danielle and Brielle Robinson, wife and daughter of Heath Robinson, the bill's namesake.
Robinson died in 2020 at age 39 of burn pit-related lung cancer. His widow, who also attended this year's State of the Union Address with first lady Jill Biden, had the honor of introducing the president Wednesday.
But once Biden took the podium, he didn't launch directly into his speech; instead, he spoke directly to 9-year-old Brielle, touching on why the legislation is as personal to the Biden family as it is to the Robinsons.
"I know you miss your daddy, but he's with you all the time," Biden told the little girl. "He's inside you. He's going to whisper in your ear when you have hard decisions to make. ... Do you see that little guy you are sitting next to? That's my grandson. His daddy lost to the same burn pit. He knows what you are going through."
Biden was referring to his son Beau Biden, who deployed to Iraq in 2008 and was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013. He died in 2015 at age 46.
"When they came home, many of the fittest and best warriors that we sent to war were not the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness, cancer," Biden said. "My son Beau was one of them."
In addition to designating 23 illnesses as service-connected for post-9/11 veterans, the PACT Act extends coverage to Vietnam veterans diagnosed with hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance; expands Agent Orange benefits for Vietnam-era veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos; allows veterans to file claims against the federal government for illnesses related to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; and improves benefits for veterans exposed to radiation during cleanups of nuclear waste sites.
"It's another step. It's a step for the Agent Orange [vets]. ... It's a step for the burn pits vets, all those who suffer from the invisible wounds of war that we have to address much more effectively," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in an interview after the ceremony. "We have a lot of work to do."
With the $279 billion bill signed into law, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said the VA is ready to serve the up to 3.5 million veterans who may have been exposed to burn pits or other airborne pollutants while serving.
"We at VA will stop at nothing to make sure that every veteran and every survivor gets the PACT Act-related care and benefits they deserve," McDonough said during the ceremony.
The last several weeks have been tumultuous for supporters of the legislation, who watched the bill pass the Senate 84-14 in June. But as a result of a procedural glitch, it required a second vote in the chamber, which then failed to garner enough votes for advancement.
Ultimately, the Senate passed the legislation in an 86-11 vote last week, after veterans and advocates spent six days camping out on the Senate steps in summer heat and thunderstorms to pressure senators to act.
The U.S. military used burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to dispose of garbage, hospital waste, batteries, spare tires, metal and other discarded items. The one at Joint Base Balad in Iraq was more than 10 acres wide and burned up to 147 tons of refuse a day.
In 2006, a bioenvironmental flight commander at the base, Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, expressed concern that the pits, which wafted black smoke over the installation 24 hours a day, were an acute health hazard; he warned of the "possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke."
Curtis' observations, as well as the concerns of troops who returned home from deployment with respiratory issues that included asthma, black phlegm, wheezing, malaise and, in some cases, cancer, were reported in 2008 by Military Times.
Since then, an unknown number of veterans have died. The advocacy group Burn Pits 360 estimates the number to be in the thousands.
Just over a decade after the first reporting on burn pits, Army Capt. Peter Antioho was diagnosed with glioblastoma -- the same cancer that killed Beau Biden. He died at age 34. His widow, Amy Antioho, spent the last year of her husband's life fighting with the VA for health services and benefits for her stricken husband.
On Wednesday, she brought the couple's six-year-old son, Mark, to the White House to witness the signing. After the event, she told reporters that she was there to support the families who will now receive benefits as a result of the law. To them, she had this advice:
"Don't give up. Don't take no for an answer. If you get no for an answer, talk to someone else. If you find yourself hitting a wall, turn the corner because there's always a way."
The bill is intended to eliminate roadblocks for veterans to receive health care and services. Antioho said that it should "always have been that way."
"We shouldn't have had to be here," she said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.