President Biden honors Utah veterans and acknowledges PACT Act benefits

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President Biden spoke to veterans and community leaders at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, honoring veterans and the anniversary of the PACT Act on Thursday, Aug. 10. 

Biden arrived in Utah for his first-ever presidential visit to the state on Wednesday, Aug. 9.

 “Come hell or high water, (we will) compensate these veterans and their families,” Biden said, regarding the PACT Act.  

President Biden is greeted with applause as he walks on stage at the Veterans Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Aug. 10. Biden spoke directly to veterans and their families, promoting the benefits of the PACT Act. (Sydni Merrill)

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, signed Aug. 10, 2022, is part of Biden’s bipartisan Unity Agenda. The Act is the most significant legislative expansion of veteran benefits in the last 30 years. 

Under the PACT Act, veterans and their families are eligible for more comprehensive healthcare and benefits regarding veteran exposure to toxic chemicals. 

Biden’s remarks given on the one year anniversary of the PACT Act’s signing was one of the few events the president participated in during his first official visit to Utah.

Sgt. Erica Smith speaks about how the PACT Act helped her, prior to introducing the president. Smith served seven years as a Black Hawk Crew Chief. (Sydni Merrill)

Elected officials, community leaders, veterans, survivors and their families, including Sgt. Erica Smith, Army veteran, cancer survivor and beneficiary of the PACT Act attended the president’s remarks.

Smith received benefits from the PACT Act when she was diagnosed with kidney cancer after finishing seven years of military service. 

“I’m so grateful for the PACT Act, and I encourage other veterans to take advantage of the benefits,” Smith said. “The military gave me the courage to take risks, and the PACT Act gave me the stability to endure no matter the outcome.”

Smith then introduced President Biden. Biden began his address with gratitude, describing Smith and other veterans as the “very spine and sinew of this generation.” 

“We have many obligations as a nation, but we only have one truly sacred obligation, and that’s to equip those we send into harm’s way and care for them and their families when they come home and when they don’t,” Biden said.

Biden said he met that sacred obligation when the PACT Act was signed. 

Signs supporting veterans and the PACT Act surround the podium. Elected officials, community leaders, veterans, survivors, and their families were invited to attend this anniversary conference. (Sydni Merrill)

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox spoke prior to the President’s remarks. Cox commented on discussions about whether Biden’s reception in a predominantly red state would be welcoming. 

“There’s been some question over whether or not the governor of the state of Utah would welcome the president of a different party,” Cox said. “I think it’s insane that we are having those conversations in our country today.” The audience applauded his statement.

Cox promoted healthy discussion over ideological differences instead of animosity. He emphasized national unity regarding support of elected officials. 

“Certainly there is one thing that we all unequivocally agree on, and that is a deep admiration and gratitude for the veterans among us,” Cox said. 

Cox and Biden acknowledged the sacrifices veterans and their families make, and Biden was emotional as he described his personal connection to the PACT Act. 

“It’s personal for my family, but it’s also personal for so many of you,” Biden said. 

Biden’s son, Beau Biden, a veteran of the Iraq war, died of brain cancer at age 46 in 2015. Biden attributes his son’s cancer to exposure to burn pits during his military service.

“They’re (burn pits are) the size of football fields, up to 100 yards long, 20-yards to 30-yards wide and 8- to 10-feet deep. Everything you can imagine is thrown in these pits and incinerated,” Biden said.

Often health issues including asthma and cancer take years to manifest following such exposure. 

Terry Schow, Army veteran, is impressed with Biden’s efforts to aid veterans. Schow has personally seen Utah veterans lives change for the better due to the PACT Act. (Sydni Merrill)

Army veteran Terry Schow currently serves as a Utah representative on the National Executive Committee for the American Legion and was impressed by Biden’s visit to a VA facility and personal concern for veterans.

“The fact that he cares about veterans. The fact that he is willing to listen. I advocated to him that the VA needs more employees, more mental health workers, better pay, and I think he’s receptive to this. So that meant something to me.”

Biden announced that more than 340,000 veteran survivors are already benefiting from the PACT Act, including more than 2,000 veterans in Utah. 

Following the president’s address the White House released data regarding the amount of requests and granted claims given to veterans and their families. Exactly 2,216 Utahns were granted help from the PACT Act since its signing.

The deadline to submit claims to receive retroactive benefits for 2022 must be submitted by Monday, Aug. 14. Biden assured the public that the VA is moving as fast as they can to ensure that all those eligible get the benefits they deserve. Information regarding claim submission can be found on the Veteran Affairs website.

“We are the United States of America. There’s nothing — nothing beyond our capacity when we decide to work together to get it done,” Biden said. “We never fail when we do that. Never on any major issue.”

Thursday, Aug. 10 marked Biden’s last day of his Southwest tour. He flew back to Washington D.C. Thursday afternoon.

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