After helping 9/11 first responders and survivors earn lifetime benefits, former Daily Show host and comedian Jon Stewart turned his attention to helping veterans affected by toxic exposure, specifically burn pits.
In a Washington Post Live event Tuesday, Stewart, joined by Wounded Warrior Project's Legislative Director Derek Fronabarger, discussed why he decided to take on advocacy for veterans exposed to burn pits and the work of the TEAM Coalition, a group of more than 30 military and veteran service organizations and experts working to draft legislation to address military toxic exposures.
For Stewart and the coalition, the immediate issue to confront is ensuring that the thousands of veterans who experienced toxic exposures and are ill because of it, receive the lifesaving health care they need immediately, which they are not guaranteed.
But Stewart said the broader issue is the way America goes to war.
"What we need is ... to change how we go to war," Stewart said. If you can't take care of those who are injured and face health issues from war, if we're going to make them fight our wars and then make them come home and fight for their lives ... We've gotten really, really good in this country at saying we support the military and we put on the flag pin and we thank then for their service and we give them that 10 percent coupon for appetizers at Chili's, but the truth is, structurally, we have not done enough to address the wounds of war that they come home with ... (and) the system is set up to deny them benefits."
Stewart took his argument one step further.
"If we've got the money to go to war, we have to make sure we have the money to take care of people when they come home from war," Stewart said. "I would like to see the people who profit off of war have to kick in for the people who suffer from the effects of war. I believe that in the way that oil and gas companies have to kick a 10 percent contingency on spills, I think war profiteers should kick in a 10 percent contingency plan, so that (veterans) don't have to always come, hat in hand, begging for money because their brothers and sisters are still dying from the things that they saw and faced in downrange war zones."
Veterans have tried that route in the past. Early last year, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from veterans exposed to toxins against KBR. Inc. and Halubuton C., both companies troops say contributed to burn pits.
One of the biggest frustrations for advocates, veterans and their families, is that disability benefits often can be denied by the Department of Veterans Affairs for a lack of evidence tying exposures to specific illnesses, and there are not "presumptive" conditions for many types of exposures. Even veterans exposed to Agent Orange decades ago still struggle to have their illnesses recognized as being connected to their service and therefore eligible for VA care. VA leaders have often cited the need for more research before presumptives can be established.
"There's a misperception in the general public where, if you're a veteran, you automatically have VA healthcare," Fronabarger said. "But there's a complex formula and process ... to show that your injury or illness or disability was due to service. It's not as easy as it sounds (and can take) eight months to a year."
And lawmakers and advocates argue those veterans need care now, not after a lengthy claims process or 20-25 years of research.
"They don't have the time for that, and that's a delaying method anyway," Stewart said.
During the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005, as many as 63 burn pits blazed across the country. At the peak of their use in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department and military contractors operated 250 burn pits. Thousands -- perhaps even millions, some advocates say -- of service members were exposed.
Burn pits were the most convenient way for the military to dispose of its trash during the wars.
Except it wasn’t just average trash that made its way into the smoking pits: toxic chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, plastic, metal cans, munitions and other unexploded ordnance, petroleum and lubricant products, rubber, wood, discarded food -- anything that could burn, did burn, doused with fuel.
Many forward operating bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries American troops have been deployed to were equipped with incinerators, which could have cut down on the toxins released into the air as greasy black smoke. But veterans and surviving families told Connecting Vets they were rarely if ever used.
Late last summer, Stewart released a public service announcement alongside advocacy group Burn Pits 360, aiming to raise awareness about the cancers, skin conditions, respiratory illnesses, autoimmune and pulmonary diseases, and many other health concerns affecting an unknown number of veterans and troops who lived and worked sometimes only a few hundred yards from the pits.
As many as 3.5 million service members may have been affected, advocates say, and many of the illnesses match those seen in 9/11 first responders.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has registries for ionizing radiation, Agent Orange, Gulf War exposures, depleted uranium from spent munitions, toxic embedded fragments and airborne hazard/open burn pits. But service members must opt-in. They are not automatically added to the registry. The registries themselves are often unwieldy or incapable of tracking trends.
So far, more than 204,000 veterans and service members have added themselves to the airborne hazards and burn pits registry since 2014.
For information on how to add yourself to VA's burn pit and airborne hazard registry, click here.
Need help with toxic exposure? Click here for a list of resources and information on VA and Defense Department registries.
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