Jon Stewart urges Congress to give injured veterans long-awaited help with bipartisan bill

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(Video Credit: PBS NewsHour)

Former Comedy Central host Jon Stewart appeared virtually at a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee meeting on Wednesday to urge Congress to pass a bill that will help Afghanistan and Iraq veterans get the care they need after being exposed to toxic burn pits.

“We are a country that loves its veterans, or certainly would purport to,” Stewart asserted. “We support the troops, and we put on our flag pins and we stand, and they get discounts at Denny’s. But the true support of having a veteran’s back is when they need the support.”

Stewart has spent the last several years advocating for veterans who are suffering from burn-pit-related illnesses such as asthma and cancer.

A “burn pit” is an area that is used for the open-air burning of waste. Many times jet fuel is used as an accelerant for the burn and the fumes that troops are exposed to during the process are poisonous. The pits were used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, many veterans are suffering from debilitating respiratory problems and cancer allegedly resulting from their exposure.

“The bottom line is this: Our country exposed our veterans to poison for years, and we knew about it, and we didn’t act with urgency and appropriateness,” said Stewart.

In August, Department of Veterans Affairs officials announced that veterans who are suffering from rhinitis and sinusitis who were exposed to toxic smoke would be granted presumptive benefit status. That allows them to receive medical and financial assistance without having to prove specific injury details. It’s estimated that approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to toxic fumes and carcinogens from burn pits according to the VA.

It has taken the VA 15 years to grant those benefits to veterans and Stewart called that fact “unacceptable.”

“There really should be one job here and one job alone, and that is: How do we implement first-rate toxic exposure healthcare for our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans,” Stewart declared.

“And we have to establish that for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, because the [toxins are] an IED that goes off in your body five years later, 10 years later, 15 years later. And yet the burden of proof and scrutiny is always on the veteran,” he charged.

He also tore into a lack of funding for the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence. The unit was established in 2019.

“Its funding is 6 to 7 million dollars a year,” Stewart noted. “Just to give a perspective on that, they spend $90 million a year on Viagra.”

Stewart dedicated the first episode of his new Apple TV show to burn pits in October. He did interviews with affected veterans and sat down with VA Secretary Denis McDonough, who told him that he is “frustrated” by the VA’s slow process of expanding benefits for them.

“The biggest hurdle is establishing a scientific link, and I will be damned if I don’t establish that,” McDonough said. “We do operate within the context of a series of requirements, and we have not yet been able to meet the requirements.”

U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the bipartisan and bicameral Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act in March. Representatives Raul Ruiz, M.D. (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) introduced the legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This legislation includes presumption and actually fixes this urgent and immoral issue. Anything else just delays and denies the treatment and benefits our warriors need,” proclaimed Stewart in March.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) introduced bipartisan legislation last June that would speed up the VA’s review process concerning toxic exposure and recognize it as a cost of war. The Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act was passed out of committee last summer but has not yet received a full vote in the House.

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