Throughout his presidential campaign, one of the most striking elements of's appeal has been his empathy. The personal tragedies he has suffered inform his interactions with voters who are also experiencing loss. And his sorrow could also guide policy decisions as commander-in-chief, offering assistance to veterans who may be suffering from service-related medical conditions — as he believes his son did.
With a familiar quiver in his voice, Biden regularly on the campaign trail shares memories of his sonfrom brain cancer. A handful of times Biden detailed how he thinks his son's cancer may have been related in part to the large, military base during his 2009 service in the Iraq War.
"He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go," Biden told a Service Employees International Union convention in October. "And because of exposure to burn pits — in my view, I can't prove it yet — he came back with Stage Four glioblastoma."
Biden's precise language — "in my view, I can't prove it yet" — appears to be intentional as he lends his voice to the ongoing and somewhat controversial debate over whether the burn pits caused lasting health issues for American veterans.
"We don't have 20 years"
As the Iraq and Afghanistan military operations grew, so did the installations of bigger burn pits on military bases, rather than the smaller burn barrels that had previously been used. The pits were meant to dispose of everything from garbage to sensitive documents and even more hazardous materials.
"They build as big as this auditorium," Biden said to a CNN town hall audience in February, "It's about 8-to-10-feet-deep and they put everything in it they want to dispose of and can't leave behind, from flammable fuel to plastics to all range of things."
But in the middle of a war zone, concern about the burn pits was sometimes considered secondary to other safety issues.
"You've got dust storms, you have the enemy, you have all sorts of things going on that some smoke in the air doesn't really seem like as important of an issue at the moment," Jim Mowrer, who befriended Beau at Camp Victory in Iraq in 2009, told CBS News. Other times, Mowrer, 34, who now serves as co-chair for the Veterans for Biden committee, said he tried to filter the air by wearing a face covering.
"The concern factor became more of a concern after we came home," Beau's overseas boss, Command JAG Kathy Amalfitano, 59, told CBS News. Amalfitano said she remembers discussing the burn pits with Beau a few times, but added "I know our thought process was that this was part of the deployment."
Biden is not alone in thinking burn pits impacted soldiers' health.
Since 2014, more than 200,000 Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans have registered in the "Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry" run by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), detailing exposure to service-related airborne hazards from burn pit smoke and other pollution.
And while these veteran health concerns seem widespread, the VA's policy only recognizes "temporary" irritation from burn pit exposure. Citing a range of studies, the department states that "research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits."
One ongoing study is by National Jewish Health and funded by the Defense Department, and is examining lung issues and has yielded "a spectrum of diseases that are related to deployment," the study's principal investigator Dr. Cecile Rose told CBS News last year. " [The diseases] weren't there before, and they are clearly there after people have returned from these arid and extreme environments." However, Rose cautioned that findings are complicated by other possible culprits, like desert dust and diesel exhaust.
Advocates for veterans say not enough is being done to address veterans' health claims regarding the burn pits.
From 2007 to 2018, the VA processed 11,581 disability compensation claims that had "at least one condition related to burn pit exposure," a department spokesman told The New York Times last year. But the department only accepted 2,318 of these claims. The department said the rest did not show evidence connected to military service or the condition in the claim was not "officially diagnosed," the Times noted.
The VA did not respond to CBS News' request this week for updated numbers.
"I always push back on…the VA administration folks who try to use the 'perfect study' as a criteria to show proof," California Representative Raul Ruiz, a doctor and vocal burn pits critic, told CBS News. Ruiz criticized the VA's reliance on long-term studies to validate clams.
"We don't have 20 years because then these veterans are going to be dying without the care they need," Ruiz said.
A report five years ago by a Defense Department inspector general said it was "indefensible" that military personnel "were put at further risk from the potentially harmful emissions from the use of open-air burn pits." But the Supreme Court last year rejected a victims' lawsuit against contractors who oversaw some of the burn pits.
"If these [burn pits] had happened in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease and Control would have this corrected immediately," said Iraq War veteran Jeremy Daniels, adding he believes burn pits caused him to be wheelchair bound.
Modern-day "Agent Orange"?
Biden on the campaign trail invoked the healthcare struggles of Vietnam veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange to explain the need to address burn pits.
"You were entitled to military compensation if you could prove that Agent Orange caused whatever the immune system damage was to you," Biden said, accenting the word "prove" during a Veterans Day town hall in Oskaloosa, Iowa. "But you had to prove it and it's very hard to prove."
After reading a book on burn pits detailing Beau's case, Biden has advocated easing this burden of proof for veterans who say the burn pits have harmed them in some way, as he first told PBS.
Biden has a plan that pushes for congressional approval to expand the list of "presumptive conditions"– meaning veterans' health conditions would be presumed causal to the burn pits making them eligible for greater VA healthcare. He also aims to expand the claim eligibility period for toxic exposure conditions to five years after service instead of one year and increase federal research by $300 million in part to focus on toxic exposure from burn pits.
This push has intensified in recent years on Capitol Hill, and bills funding more research into burn pits have already been signed by President Trump. The recent National Defense Authorization Act also required the Department of Defense to implement a plan to phase out burn pits and disclose the locations of the still-operating pits. Enclosed incinerators are an alternative.
There were nine active military burn pits in the Middle East as of last year, according to the Defense Department's April 2019 "Open Burn Pit Report to Congress" shared with CBS News, though some advocates think the actual number is higher.
Some veterans expressed doubt that recent efforts will lead to more aid for veterans exposed to burn pits, given the slow-moving bureaucracy and concern over higher health care costs. And others question whether a Biden administration would act more decisively than the Obama administration, which primarily focused on long-term studies.
But Biden says that his motivation is far greater than his family's own personal loss, and that the "only sacred" commitment the United States has is to American soldiers.
"It's not because my son died…[he] went from very, very healthy but he lived in the bloom of those burn pits for a long time. He's passed—it doesn't affect him," Biden said in Oskaloosa. "But the point is that every single veteran shouldn't have to prove and wait until science demonstrates beyond a doubt…We just have to change the way we think a little bit."
May 30 will mark the five-year anniversary of Beau Biden's death.