Appearing at a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee meeting Wednesday, Jon Stewart urged members of Congress to help Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans suffering from exposure to toxic burn pits.
“We are a country that loves its veterans, or certainly would purport to,” Stewart said during the virtual meeting. “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.”
The comedian, talk show host and activist has spent the past few years advocating on behalf of veterans suffering from burn-pit-related illnesses.
The phrase “burn pit” refers to an area of a military base devoted to open-air burning of waste, often using jet fuel as an accelerant. The U.S. military used these open-air fire pits to dispose of waste in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many veterans say they are now suffering debilitating respiratory problems, even rare cancers, because of their exposure.
An estimated 3.5 million veterans may have been exposed to toxic fumes and carcinogens from burn pits, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Last August, VA officials announced for the first time that veterans suffering asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis who were exposed to toxic smoke would be granted presumptive benefit status, allowing them to receive medical and financial assistance without having to prove specific injury details.
Stewart said the fact that it took 15 years for the VA to grant those benefits is “unacceptable.”
He also criticized what he called a relative lack of funding for the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence, which was established in 2019.
“Its funding is 6 to 7 million dollars a year,” Stewart said. “Just to give a perspective on that, they spend $90 million a year on Viagra.”
Stewart has used his celebrity to put a spotlight on the issue. In October, he dedicated the first episode of his new Apple TV show to burn pits. It featured interviews with veterans suffering from toxic exposure as well as a sit-down with VA Secretary Denis McDonough, who told Stewart that he is “frustrated” by his department’s slow pace of expanding benefits for them.
“The biggest hurdle is establishing a scientific link, and I will be damned if I don’t establish that,” he said. “We do operate within the context of a series of requirements, and we have not yet been able to meet the requirements.”
Last June, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, introduced bipartisan legislation that would streamline the VA’s review process to recognize toxic exposure as a cost of war. The bill, the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, passed out of committee last summer but has yet to receive a full vote in the House.