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‘Work together’: Biden urges support for veterans in Utah address on historic anniversary

Aug 10, 2023, 5:05 PM | Updated: 5:07 pm

President Biden looks at the crowd while speaking at a podium...

President Joe Biden speaks in Salt Lake City, Utah about the PACT Act for veterans on Aug. 10, 2023. (Kira Hoffelmeyer/KSL NewsRadio)

(Kira Hoffelmeyer/KSL NewsRadio)

SALT LAKE CITY — President Joe Biden called for more support for veterans and urged them to take advantage of available resources during a Thursday address on the anniversary of the PACT Act at George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

He said the country has a “truly sacred obligation” to care for its veterans and called the PACT Act “one of the most significant laws ever signed.”

Erica Smith, of Ogden, is a veteran who enlisted at 17 and was just 23 when she discovered cancer growing on her kidney. Through PACT, she was able to get treatment and benefits that helped her buy a house.

“The military gave me the courage to take risks, and the PACT Act gave me the stability to endure, no matter the outcome,” said Smith, who introduced the president.

The passing of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxins Act on Aug. 10, 2022, expanded health care benefits for veterans who suffered toxic exposures from burn pits and Agent Orange in Vietnam, the Gulf War and post-9/11 combat. It also added more than 20 health issues to a list of health conditions assumed to be caused by exposure to these toxic substances, helping to ensure more veterans will get help for health problems related to their service.

Biden said he wants to spread the word to make sure every veteran knows how to get help, and encouraged them to go to va.gov/pact to file a claim. Veterans can apply through Monday for retroactive PACT benefits for the past year, he said.

In its first year, the PACT Act has provided health care to 360,249 veterans and their survivors, the White House said in a statement Thursday. PACT efforts include screening veterans for toxic exposures, prioritizing veterans with cancer, increasing the Veterans Affairs workforce and expediting the timeline for veterans and survivors to receive benefits, per the statement.

“There’s no difference between having a mental health problem or breaking your arm or leg,” the president said emphatically during his speech. “You should not be worried about asking for help. We have to make sure people know there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

He added, “No one should be homeless in this country, especially not those who served.”

Biden also shared other initiatives to help veterans and announced the U.S. veteran unemployment rate has hit an all-time low of 2.8%. More Biden-Harris administration efforts, he said, include the fight to end veteran homelessness, with the VA finding permanent housing for more than 40,000 veterans last year; investing in veterans’ mental health and suicide prevention efforts, and securing more jobs for veterans through a transition assistance grant program.

Shane Hancock, of West Jordan, was one veteran in the audience and served in the military for 28 years, including three Iraq deployments. He said he has had difficulty breathing since his exposure to burn pits, and called it an “awesome thing” that Biden passed the PACT Act.

Hancock said he hopes to see more awareness about mental illness and sexual assault in the military, going forward.

Sgt. Joshua Hansen, of Woods Cross, who joined the military after 9/11 and medically retired in 2010, also attended Biden’s speech Thursday. Hansen told KSL-TV on Wednesday he hasn’t yet needed to file a claim under the PACT Act, but he’s glad to have the option in case he develops symptoms from his back-to-back tours of duty in Iraq.

“The PACT Act, to me, is very important for the military and everyone that served over there, to make sure they are getting tested and checked out,” Hansen said.

He was in charge of a guard tower near a burn pit in Iraq and said he has worried about possible health effects from the piles of burning debris.

“Basically, all the toxins from the burn pit would literally come in and just engulf the concrete tower with my men in it,” Hansen said. “I’d walk outside and just see nothing but a mist of smoke from all the burning pits, and it was just a horrible smell.”

Burn pit 08/10/2023

A burn pit is seen in Balad, Iraq between the years of 2004 and 2005. The PACT Act, which celebrates its one-year anniversary Thursday, expanded health care benefits for veterans who suffered toxic exposure from burn pits, Agent Orange and more. (Sgt. Joshua Hansen)

The president also addressed the ongoing wildfires raging in Maui, encouraging those affected to go to disasterassistance.gov for resources.

“Not just our prayers, every asset we have will be available to them,” he said.

Biden ended his speech Thursday with an emphatic call to action, saying, “We’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve got to keep going. … There’s nothing beyond our capacity when we decide to work together to get it done.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall spoke prior to Biden, welcoming the president to Utah and thanking the state’s veterans for their service.

“We’re grateful to have you here honoring veterans in the United States,” Cox said, adding that he appreciates the chance to collaborate on policy and find common ground.

“President Biden, thank you for finally helping this country to address the needs of our great veterans, who for too long suffered chronic illness and died from exposure to burn pits,” Mendenhall said.

Biden arrived at Roland R. Wright Air National Guard Base at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday as part of the president’s western states tour. He had visited the Beehive State in 2016 when he was the vice president, and again in 2018 after leaving office and before announcing his run for president in 2020. Biden reached Utah just a few hours after a Provo man who posted threatening comments about the president was shot and killed by FBI agents.

Other notable attendees at Biden’s speech Thursday included Utah’s House Minority Leader Angela Romero, Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, University of Utah President Taylor Randall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, among others. State Sens. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, and Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, were also in attendance.

“I was going to get this done, come hell or high water,” Biden said, praising the success of the PACT Act.

After his appearance in Salt Lake City, Biden traveled to Park City Thursday for a fundraiser hosted by Kristi and John Cumming, founder of ski resort company Powdr, and Nancy and Mark Gilbert, a former U.S. ambassador. The event was advertised as a fundraiser for the Biden Victory Fund, the committee backing Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign.

The event was believed to be located somewhere within the Colony at White Pine Canyon in Park City, a gated community.

The gate to enter the community — along with the roads leading to it, from Exit 145 off I-80 and all along White Pine Canyon Road — were densely populated with unmarked security vehicles, Park City police vehicles and Summit County sheriff’s vehicles.

A police officer and a Secret Service agent were guarding the gate.

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‘Work together’: Biden urges support for veterans in Utah address on historic anniversary