In a rare moment of political unity, comedian-turned-activist Jon Stewart joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday to announce legislation that would allow easier access to VA benefits for veterans who were exposed to burn pits during their military service.
The bill, officially known as the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, is being spearheaded by odd couple Kirsten Gillibrand and Marco Rubio, who were both advocating alongside Stewart for this landmark legislation. If passed, the law would remove the current burden of proof that is placed on veterans to establish a direct link between their time in the military and the health condition(s) from which they’re now suffering, which range from respiratory illness 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.”
Burn pits are open-air swaths of land that the military uses for disposing of everything from human waste to munitions. The smoke from these areas has been shown to cause a wide range of health issues, many of them fatal. Though they were originally designed as a temporary solution to ridding military bases of excess debris, they’re no longer legal in the United States precisely because of the health hazards they pose.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits. In 2014, the VA created the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, so that veterans experiencing health issues related to burn pits could document their cases and receive the appropriate care. But so far, less than 240,000 people have registered, as an estimated 78 percent of burn pit claims are denied. But according to Stewart, it’s not the VA’s job to determine who is and is not eligible for benefits — nor should the onus be on the veterans themselves, who were never warned of the dangers of these burn pits, even when they were sleeping just a few feet away from them.
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 likened the issue to both Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War and the health issues faced by 9/11 first responders — another group that has remained 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.”
“This is sort of a moral imperative,” says comedian Jon Stewart, who has joined bipartisan efforts to push for a “Burn Pit” bill to help veterans.
“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” pic.twitter.com/GBCvUCaTki
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) April 13, 2021
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.”