Veteran’s widow reflects on ‘emotional battle’ of burn pit illnesses as she introduces Biden at bill signing

·4 min read

Just over two years after her husband Sgt First Class Heath Robinson died from a rare form of lung cancer caused by exposure to toxic burn pits while deployed in Iraq, Danielle Robinson stood in the White House on Wednesday as landmark legislation to care for veterans in a similar condition was signed into law.

Named after her husband, the bill — The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promises to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 — was a long time coming.

President Joe Biden specifically asked lawmakers to work on the legislation during his March State of the Union address, at which Ms Robinson sat beside first lady Jill Biden.

On Wednesday, joined by her nine-year-old daughter Brielle, and mother-in-law Susan Zeier, she was back in Washington at the end of that process, introducing the commander-in-chief ahead of his remarks and the formal signing ceremony.

“I never thought this day would actually come where we would honour my husband’s dying wish to take care of his brothers and sisters in arms,” Ms Robinson told The Independent on Tuesday ahead of the signing.

“A few weeks before he passed, when he was deteriorating rapidly, he said: ‘I can’t be a voice in my own battle so I want you and my mother-in-law to speak for me.’

“I know he’s looking down on us and is very proud to see that we didn’t give up even though we kept being turned down on Capitol Hill. I know Heath would be proud of the journey and the battle and all the hard work and sleepless nights that we’ve been able to get the legislation passed.”

Ahead of the president’s remarks, Ms Robinson addressed the crowded room: “As a military spouse, when your loved one returns home safely from a deployment, you count your blessings. You are filled with gratitude as you begin living as a family again.

“Ten years post-deployment from Iraq, my husband began the biggest battle of his life. A lung cancer diagnosis due to exposure from a toxic burn pit in Baghdad. We quickly learned about warriors who battled their own burn pit illnesses before him and the warriors who were still fighting for their lives alongside him.”

She continued: “Today, I want to remember Heath for the man he was, a person who would instantly drop what he was doing to help a friend or stranger off the street. A soldier, strong physically and mentally. The ultimate cuddler and protector to our sweet little girl and a leader with a strong warrior ethos to all those who served under him.”

President Joe Biden looks on as Danielle Robinson, wife of Sgt First Class Heath Robinson, speaks during a signing ceremony for the PACT Act of 2022 (AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden looks on as Danielle Robinson, wife of Sgt First Class Heath Robinson, speaks during a signing ceremony for the PACT Act of 2022 (AFP via Getty Images)

Reflecting on the long path to getting legislation passed, she said: “I would like to thank all members of congress who supported and voted for the PACT Act, all the veterans’ organisations who help raise our voices on Capitol Hill, and all advocates like Jon Stewart for your support.

“We could not have done this without you all. Ours is just one story. So many families had to fight this emotional battle. So many veterans are battling burn pit illnesses today. Too many have succumbed to those illnesses.”

Introducing the president she referred to him as “the father of another military family who understands the ultimate sacrifice like we do”.

Mr Biden’s commitment to supporting veterans is deeply personal; he often speaks of his late son Beau and his belief that his terminal cancer was caused by exposure to burn pits.

Beau was a captain in the Delaware Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq in 2008, spending much of the next year breathing in the 10-acre burn pit at Balad Air Force Base.

In 2015 he died at the age of 46 following a battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.

During the bill signing, the president acknowledged his grandson, who was sitting in the audience next to Brielle, and said: “My grandson, his daddy, [was] lost to the same burn pits. He knows what you’re going through.”

After the signing, Mr Biden offered the pen he used to Brielle.

President Joe Biden hands a pen to Brielle Robinson, the daughter of Sgt First Class Heath Robinson, after signing the PACT Act of 2022 into law (AFP via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden hands a pen to Brielle Robinson, the daughter of Sgt First Class Heath Robinson, after signing the PACT Act of 2022 into law (AFP via Getty Images)

In his remarks, Mr Biden called it the “most significant law our nation has ever passed to help veterans who were exposed to toxic substances” and said: “I was gonna get this done come hell or higher water.”

He also thanked the campaigners and veterans’ groups who pushed for the federal government to act, and also specifically thanked comedian Jon Stewart: “You refused to let anybody forget ... we owe you big, man.”

The president added that this was one of those issues about which Republicans and Democrats could come together: “This law was long overdue and we got it done together.”