Burn pit advocate invited to Biden's State of the Union address speaks out on veteran health care reform push

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WASHINGTON – The widow of Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, a veteran who succumbed to a rare and deadly cancer after his exposure to burn pits, recalls her reaction when President Biden invited her to Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.

“Surprised, to say the least,” Danielle Robinson told Fox News about the invitation she received earlier this week. “I am a physical therapist and was in the middle of working with one of my dear patients with balance exercises when my front desk staff told me I needed to go answer some calls on my cellphone.

“Little did I know that in 24 hours, I would be sitting with Dr. Jill Biden at the State of the Union address. Still does not feel real.”

Robinson was asked to attend by the White House as Biden announced plans to bring reform to the complicated process millions of veterans face when attempting to get compensation for health care due to their exposure to burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced many dangers. One being stationed at bases breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits,” Biden said before introducing Danielle Robinson to the House chamber. “He [Heath Robinson] was born a soldier. Army National Guard. Combat medic in Kosovo and Iraq. Stationed near Baghdad, just yards from burn pits the size of football fields.” 

Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, left, developed a rare form of deadly cancer after he was exposed to burn pits during a 13-month tour of duty in Iraq.
(Susan Zeier)

“Danielle says Heath was a fighter to the very end. He didn’t know how to stop fighting, and neither did she. Through her pain, she found purpose to demand that we do better. Tonight, Danielle, we are going to do better.” 

Biden added during his address that an additional nine respiratory cancers will be included on a list of presumptive conditions, which will lead to expanded eligibility for veterans.

“I’m also calling on Congress to pass a law to make sure veterans devastated by toxic exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and the comprehensive health care,” he said.

The president also mentioned his son Beau, who he also believed may have become ill from exposure.

Danielle Robinson was invited to attend Tuesday’s State of The Union Address by President Biden and first lady Jill Biden.

“They [service members] come home many of the fittest and best-trained warriors in the world, never the same. Headaches, numbness, dizziness, a cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin,” he said. “One of those soldiers was my son, Maj. Beau Biden. I don’t know for sure if the burn pit that he lived there, that his hooch [barracks] was there in Iraq, and before that Kosovo, is the cause of his brain cancer and the disease of so many other troops. But I am committed to find out everything we can.”

The Investigative Unit at Fox News has reported extensively on veterans made sick from their exposure to burn pits. Many service members said the pits were a crude method of incineration in which every piece of waste was burned, including plastics, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste. The items were often set ablaze using jet fuel as the accelerant.

The pits were used to burn more than 1,000 different chemical compounds day and night. Most service members breathed in toxic fumes with no protection.

Heath Robinson was believed to have contracted a rare autoimmune disorder called mucus membrane pemphigoid after he was exposed to burn pits during a 13-month tour in Iraq with the Ohio National Guard. While he received assistance due to the fact he was still in the military, Danielle Robinson and her mother, Susan Zeier, have been long-time advocates for other veterans.

“Heath’s dying wish was to have fellow brother and sisters [fellow service members] who come down with toxic exposure illness to be taken care of in ways we take care of them when they are active duty,” Robinson said to Fox News. “He would be proud of all us advocates seeing this go forward. Heath did not know how to give up. Before he was placed on hospice, He told me to continue to be the rock and see this through. Before he passed, he told me he was proud of me for never letting him give up.

Robinson said that as she was getting ready to attend the address on Tuesday, she had received a call from the company that made Heath Robinson’s headstone that his marker was placed on his grave.

Danielle Robinson, seen in this photo with President Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, was invited to a pre-address reception at the White House.
(Susan Zeier)

“The same day, I was able to honor him in Washington,” she said. “It gave me chills. I think this was his way of saying, ‘You are continuing to be a rock. Keep going.’”

Biden’s remarks at the State of the Union came on the heels of a vote taking place this week on Capitol Hill. On Thursday, the House of Representatives is set to vote on the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2021 or Honoring our PACT Act of 2021. The bill is one of a few regarding burn pits  being lobbied for in Washington and considered a landmark piece of legislation that could bring sweeping reform to how the Veterans Administration handles the claims of service members.

A key portion of the bill would make burn pits exposure a presumptive condition after military service. 

As a result, the VA will be required to recognize that all troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to toxic fumes from burn pits and other airborne fumes during their deployment. Up to 3.5 million veterans could benefit from the new law. The bill is considered “very likely” to be passed on Thursday, according to sources close to the matter.

Robinson said she’s happy the bill will go up for a vote, calling it a vital first step in helping veterans. Still she said there’s much more work to be done.

“Unfortunately, there are many burn pits bills which have been introduced over the years,” she said. “[However] other bills do not give presumption and leave out many of the illnesses our veterans are facing, including constrictive bronchiolitis and many terminal cancers. The other bills currently out there also have time restraints, which leaves many veterans not taken care of.”

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