Since retiring from television in 2015, comedian Jon Stewart's most prominent work has been on behalf of Sept. 11 first responders — people who got sick after working in the toxic wreckage of the World Trade Center. Many credit his celebrity testimony in 2019 with pushing Congress to preserve the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation fund.
While he was doing that lobbying, Stewart met Rosie Torres, who advocates for troops who were exposed to toxic burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. Torres says she heard Stewart say it took just five seconds for police and firemen to respond on Sept. 11.
"That's the amount of time Jon... took to respond to our ask," to lend his voice to burn pit veterans, says Torres.
Torres' husband Le Roy served in Balad, Iraq, where U.S. military contractors burned trash with jet-fuel in an open pits bigger than football fields. He was too sick to travel to Washington this week, but on Tuesday, she joined Stewart, burn pit veterans, advocates and lawmakers for a press conference on the steps of the Capitol.
Stewart didn't think he'd be back in Washington after his last testimony.
"We thought it was done," Stewart said, "but it turns out that the veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering the same illnesses and the same toxic exposures, because of the actions of our own government."
Hundreds of thousands of troops have signed on the VA's registry for those who believe they were exposed to burn pits. His voice filled with anger, Stewart said lawmakers should try creating burn pits in the towns of their home districts.
"And when your constituents come to you and say, 'what's with this thick black acrid smoke?', just say 'I think it's fine,'" he said, "but if you have lung cancer, you can't actually prove that it was the smoke."
That's the kind of response veterans say they get from the VA when they try to get health benefits based on toxic exposure overseas. As recently as last week, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that couldn't link the burn pits to cancers and other illness. But that's not the same as proving there is no link.
"What the National Academy of Sciences said last Friday is, there is no data," said former VA Secretary David Shulkin, speaking at the same event.
"We have a backwards system, that doesn't honor our commitment that we made to these men and women when we send them into conflict," Shulkin said. "When there is no data available, but there's a plausible explanation and veterans are suffering, we have to give veterans the benefit of doubt."
For Danielle Robinson, that's the opposite of what the government has done so far. Robinson spoke on the Capitol steps alongside Stewart and other advocates. Her husband was posted next to a burn pit in Iraq. He died in April, leaving behind a young daughter.
"Now paint this picture in your head: A little girl walking into the bathroom on multiple occasions, finding her daddy bent over, gasping for breath, and blood is everywhere on the floor," she said.
Robinson, a widow at 35, thanked Stewart for speaking out.
"But at the same time it's a national disgrace that our war heroes need celebrities to speak out on their behalf to get this addressed. Veterans voices don't seem to matter to the same people who sent them off to war in the first place," she said.
Many have compared the burn pits issue to Agent Orange, a defoliant that made thousands of Vietnam vets sick – some of whom still aren't covered by the VA. Now, a bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) would cover anyone who served at dozens of documented burn pits and toxic exposure sites.
"More than three million service members could have been exposed to toxic burn pits, yet the VA continues to deny them care by placing the burden of proof on veterans suffering from rare cancers, lung diseases, and respiratory illnesses," said Gillibrand, " The bottom line is that our veterans served our country, they are sick and they need health care — period."
Gillibrand is seeking Republican cosponsors, many of whom have supported other burn pit legislation in the past.
Members of Congress walked by as the event went on. Stewart said this is just the beginning.
"And we're going to fill this space with veterans and victims until those Congress people who you saw walk by here with not a care in the world about what these families have gone through, until they're forced to face it," he said.
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