On Tuesday, comedian-turned-activist Jon Stewart joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers to announce legislation that would make it easier for veterans who were exposed to burn pits while serving in the military to access VA benefits.
The bill, officially known as the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, is being led by odd couple Kirsten Gillibrand and Marco Rubio, who both campaigned alongside Stewart for this historic legislation. If enacted, the bill will relieve veterans of their existing presumption of evidence in proving a clear connection between their service in the military and their current health problems, which may range from respiratory disease to cancer.
“These men and women swore an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic,” Stewart said. “Well, what do you do when you’ve fulfilled that obligation and you come home and the enemy is now negligence and bureaucracy and apathy? They’re not trained for that.”
The military uses open-air swaths of land known as burn pits to dispose of anything from human waste to munitions. The smoke from these areas has been linked to a variety of health problems, many of which are fatal. Despite the fact that they were created as a temporary solution for clearing military bases of excess waste, they are no longer legal in the United States due to the health risks they pose.
About 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA established the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry in 2014 to help veterans with health problems related to burn pits track their cases and get the help they need. However, less than 240,000 people have registered so far, owing to the fact that an estimated 78 percent of burn pit claims are rejected. But, according to Stewart, it is not the VA’s responsibility to decide who is and isn’t qualified for compensation, and neither should it be the veterans’, who were never warned of the risks of these burn pits, even while sleeping just a few feet away.
According to Stewart: “The VA has one job: to act for the benefit of the veteran. That’s it. You’re not an insurance company. You’re not an obstacle to care. You are there to act for the benefit of the veteran. 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.” Stewart has compared the situation to both Agent Orange contamination during the Vietnam War and the health problems experienced by 9/11 first responders, another community close to Stewart’s heart.
Stewart brought further awareness to the issue of burn pits when he chatted with Jake Tapper later in the day. “This is sort of a moral imperative,” Stewart told the CNN anchor of his push for stronger laws to protect the men and women who are losing their lives after fighting for our country. “This is the cost of war when you send people overseas, you have to be prepared for taking care of the consequences of that service.”
Though the fate of the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act is uncertain, other proposals are currently being floated that would seek to compensate the victims of burn pit exposure. But to Stewart, the matter goes far beyond financial compensation.
“For those that have fought and defended and served this country, for them to come home and have to fight against the very government that they volunteered to defend is immoral.”