Jon Stewart leads rally for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 13, 2021
WASHINGTON — Comedian Jon Stewart, serious and impatient, prodded lawmakers Tuesday to help veterans suffering from illnesses believed to be caused by toxic exposures during overseas deployments.
Stewart became a fierce advocate for 9/11 responders who developed illnesses from the toxic fumes at the destroyed World Trade Center. He recently turned his attention to veterans suffering from diseases caused by exposure to burn pits and other toxic environments since the Gulf War.
Stewart spoke in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters Tuesday, surrounded by veterans suffering from cancers and respiratory conditions and families of veterans who had died. He vowed to draw attention to the lawmakers who oppose aid for the veterans.
“Veterans are human beings, and as you hear their stories, you hear the true cost of war,” Stewart said. “At some point, the bill comes due.”
Throughout the 1990s and the post-9/11 wars, the military used open-air pits to burn garbage, jet fuel, paint, medical waste and plastics. Veterans diagnosed with cancers, respiratory issues and lung diseases at young ages have blamed exposure to the toxic fumes. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs has contended that there is not sufficient evidence to support those claims.
National Guard veteran Cynthia Aman was diagnosed with a rare and progressive form of lung cancer after deploying to the Middle East, where she was exposed to burn pits. The VA denied Aman’s claims for benefits multiple times for several years before she won her case.
“I became my own researcher, attorney and subject-matter expert,” Aman said. “It sparked a fire in me to help as many veterans as possible, because many are sick and dying and they don’t have the strength or voice left to carry on the mission.”
Tuesday’s rally was planned to lend momentum to the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, which would streamline the process for veterans to get benefits.
Currently, veterans must provide proof of their medical conditions and evidence of their locations at specific burn pits or points where the exposure occurred. Then, they must undergo a medical exam and start a disability compensation claim, which can take years. Under the proposed bill, veterans would need to prove only that they deployed to parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa since 1990 and suffer from a condition associated with toxic exposure.
The bill is one of seven pieces of legislation introduced in recent weeks to aid veterans suffering the effects of toxic exposures. Stewart touted this one as the most comprehensive.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced the bill in the Senate, and Reps. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., are leading the House version. The lawmakers are anticipating some pushback because of the potential cost.
The cost of the legislation was unavailable Tuesday. Gillibrand said the lawmakers were waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to provide an estimate.
“Whatever it is, we should pay for it,” she said. “And make people well aware that this is the cost of war.”
The same bill was introduced during the last congressional session but failed to make progress. The introduction of multiple bills recently, as well as President Joe Biden’s personal experience with the issue, has increased momentum, the lawmakers said Tuesday.
Biden has said he believes toxic smoke is to blame for the brain cancer that killed his son Beau in 2015. Beau Biden was a major in the Delaware Army National Guard and was exposed to burn pits during a deployment to Iraq.
“I believe having that kind of support from the White House will make an extraordinary difference,” Gillibrand said.
Multiple people who spoke at Tuesday’s rally cited the need to fix the VA process for adding illnesses to a list of conditions presumed to be caused by toxic exposure, arguing that it’s slow and cumbersome. Congress passed legislation earlier this year adding three conditions to the list that stem from exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Congress took action only after numerous scientific studies and years of deliberations by the VA.
Stewart said he had talked with VA Secretary Denis McDonough and White House staff about the issue.
“The VA has one job – to act for the benefit of the veteran. That’s it,” Stewart said. “And if the culture doesn’t change, then we will continue to make the same mistake we’ve clearly made, decade after decade after decade, forcing more suffering and disease when it needn’t be the case.”