WASHINGTON — On Tuesday night, Danielle Robinson of Sandusky sat in the Capitol building in Washington D.C., listening to President Joe Biden address the country during the State of the Union.
But Robinson was more than just a listener; her family’s story was specifically mentioned by the president during the speech when he addressed the topic of burn pits.
“Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced many dangers,” President Biden said. “One being stationed at bases and breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits.”
Burn pits are football field sized areas in war zones where the military burned war waste. President Biden specifically mentioned “medical and hazard material, jet fuel, and more.”
Robinson’s husband, Heath, served in both Kosovo and Iraq. At both bases, he was exposed to burn pits and the toxic smoke they emit. He ultimately developed lung cancer and passed away in 2020, a shock to the family of a young and healthy serviceman.
“Cancer from prolonged exposure to burn pits ravaged Heath’s lungs and body,” the president said during the address. “Danielle says Heath was a fighter to the very end.”
Now, Robinson and her mother, Susan Weier, are the fighters, fighting for veterans’ rights and for legislation that will better cover the health issues veterans experience after exposure to burn pits.
“Speechless, and just remarkable where we’re at now,” Robinson said of attending the event. “But it really should be the ones who are no longer with us that should’ve been able to attend the State of the Union.”
Robinson was given a standing ovation during the address. Watching from the White House was her mother.
“When the president was talking about Danielle I was so proud, and I was crying. It was just overwhelming,” Weier said. “Overwhelming with joy yet sadness because of the reason we were there.”
Robinson said while Heath and her family were mentioned by name, the recognition symbolized much more.
“This was just a voice and one story,” she said. “But it meant that I was the voice now for so many others, so many other veterans. It was just a breakthrough to get this done for many families.”
The cause is also personal to the Bidens. Beau Biden passed away of cancer. He and Heath were at the same bases in Kosovo and Iraq.
“We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops,” the president said of his son’s death. “But I’m committed to finding out everything we can. “
Robinson was seated with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden for the address, and was able to go to the White House beforehand, where she spoke with the First Lady.
“She did get emotional at that point in time,” Robinson said of her meeting with Dr. Biden. “At first she didn’t really know what to say to me. In that moment, it kind of takes you back to those days that they were last here and all the fight that they went through. You could feel it, it was very heartfelt just holding her hand and telling her your story.”
Adding to the emotion of the day was a phone call Robinson received while getting ready for the address. Heath died in 2020, but did not have a headstone due to delays from COVID. But on Tuesday, Robinson received a phone call.
“They were just notifying me that his headstone was actually placed yesterday. So it was actually placed on the day that I was going to be going to Washington and going to the White House reception and going to the State of the Union address,” Robinson said. “Literally cold chills, and it was just a huge sign.”
Robinson and Weier are advocating for House Bill 3967, the “Honoring our PACT Act of 2021.” If passed, the bill would secure benefits and primary care for any soldier who served in any of the countries where burn pits were maintained, and who contracted one or more of the qualifying illnesses. It would cover veterans dating back to 1991 and Operation Desert Storm, through America’s most recent post-9/11 conflicts.
The most significant portion of the bill would require the Veterans Affairs Department recognize that all troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to poisonous emissions from burn pits and other airborne hazards during deployments.
“The veterans would no longer have to be their own lawyer, doctor, and advocate and fight the VA to get the care they deserve,” said Weier.
Weier, Robinson, veterans’ rights advocate Jon Stewart, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were present at a press conference Wednesday morning on the topic. Weier said the vote on the bill will be Thursday.
“I feel like both Beau and Heath and soldiers that are coming home with these illnesses, they’re your research that we need to continue to get this Honor our PACT Act done,” Robinson said.
“They need to put their party politics aside. This is an American issue. It is not red, it’s not blue. It’s American,” said Weier. “We sent our soldiers, our men and women off to war. And it’s our obligation to take care of them when they come home and they’re not ok.”
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