Jon Stewart, veteran groups urge passage of burn pits, toxic exposure legislation

.S. Army Staff Sgt. Alexis Castillo watches as unused mortar ‘cheese’ charges are disposed of by fire during a mortar training
exercise with Iraqi soldiers.
Photo credit Sgt. Gustavo Olgiati/U.S. Army

The message Tuesday on and to Capitol Hill was a strong one.

Veterans exposed to burn pits while serving overseas should be presumed to have exposure to toxins and have access to Department of Veterans Affairs care and benefits.

Burn Pits 360, GruntStyle and several veterans service organizations came together during an advocacy day on Capitol Hill to bring that message to lawmakers and urge support for the bipartisan and bicameral Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters to Burn Pits and Other Toxins bill recently introduced by U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY.

“You spend your time when you come back home basically as a defendant in a trial for your own health care and health,” said Jon Stewart, comedian and activist. “They have to come home and fight against the very government that they volunteered to defend, is immoral, is unconscionable and is easily remedied.”

Stewart has used his star power to support legislation to provide care and benefits to 9/11 first responders and now veterans.

“Our veterans coming home from war today have to start a battle with the VA for the care and benefits they’ve earned,” Gillibrand said. “Eight out of 10 times they are denied that coverage. It is not just a health care crisis. It is a moral outrage.”

U.S. Reps. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., introduced the legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would provide presumptive VA benefits to service members who have deployed and have illnesses due to exposure to burn pits and other toxins. Approximately 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to burn pits, according to VA.

Gina Cancelino recalled her husband, Joseph, a Marine veteran and former New York police officer who died of an aggressive form of cancer in 2019.

“We knew nothing about his exposure to toxic burn pits in Iraq until shortly before he died,” he said. “They don’t know what they were exposed to.”

Cancelino said her husband lost his war against cancer “at home, in my living room on July 17, 2019 at 12:49 a.m., where I watched him take his last breath, I will never forget that. Our children will never forget that.”

Army combat veteran Mark T. Jackson was on hand to represent the 15,000 veterans of the K2 Air Base in Uzbekistan.

“Our boots were on that ground weeks after the 9/11 attacks,” he said. “We’re all sick, dying or dead because of it.”

Jackson said the ground at K2 “oozed black goo, and the air hung heavy and ashen. Standing water changed colors throughout the day. Yellow cake uranium gathered in radioactive clumps like poison orbs. The burn pits sent black smoke and soot like relentless snow that clung to our clothes, our tents and our lungs. It’s killing us now.”

Jackson then detailed his personal health battles including anemia and other challenges.

“My doctor says I have the bones of an 80-year-old woman,” he said. “I’m 43 years old. I have nothing to lose in speaking my mind. I have nothing to lose in demanding action. I have nothing to lose in seeing the VA’s promises and fake platitudes for the vacuous drivel they are.”

Navy veteran Tom Porter, executive vice president for government affairs at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the issue of toxic exposure is a personal one for him. He has asthma as a result of his service in Afghanistan a decade ago.

Porter said 86% of the respondents to a recent IAVA survey of post-9/11 veterans said they had been exposed to burn pits.

“Of that 86%, 89% say they are experiencing health care problems and symptoms as a result of those exposures,” he continued. “That’s massive. What happens when they try to get health care at the VA? They get turned down 80% of the time.”

Associate Director of National Legislative Services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Kayda Keleher said veterans like herself may never be fully aware of all they have been exposed to as a result of their service.

“We must not let burn pits become the next Agent Orange,” she said.

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