Jon Stewart, former Daily Show host and longtime advocate for 9/11 first responders, brought his trademark fiery spirit to a recent veterans event, asking the VA to grant presumption status to veterans exposed to toxins from burn pits before they die waiting on research to make the connection.
“If you can’t take care of those that are injured and face health issues, if we’re going to make them fight wars and then come home and fight for their lives, that has to change,” said Stewart, one of four speakers in an online discussion produced by The Washington Post. “That’s a model that has to change.”
Earlier this year, Stewart met with members of the Toxic Exposures in the American Military (TEAM) coalition – including representatives of MOAA, a founding member – to discuss preliminary steps for developing strategy to ensure servicemembers exposed to toxins from the waste-disposal pits will receive appropriate medical care for ensuing medical problems.
The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed efforts, but the coalition is continuing to work with federal lawmakers on legislation. Some of the legislation includes connecting service locations to health records, instructing DoD to phase out burn pits, educating servicemembers on changes in their health related to toxins, and, as Stewart told roundtable viewers, advising the VA to grant presumption to veterans exposed to burn pits.
The web event also included Senate Veterans Affairs Committee member Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.); Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), who is also a medical doctor; and Tara Copp, a journalist who has reported on decades of toxic exposure to veterans.
Each speaker noted there is evidence to connect health issues to exposure to toxins from burn pits, but veterans are being held up by the VA to receive care because the department has requested more studies linking problems to exposure.
Stewart challenged the need to wait on additional studies, citing past studies that link jet fuel toxins from New York’s Ground Zero to health problems of first responders and other survivors of 9/11 – for which he has been an fervent supporter. War-zone burn pits typically were doused with jet fuel before being set on fire.
“One of the great delay methods is to say, ‘We don’t have the science yet. We need to study it, which could take 20 to 25 years,’” Stewart said. “A lot of these people will have died … so they don’t have the time for that. And it’s just a delay method anyway.”
Advocating for veterans exposed to toxins is nothing new for Tillis, who has worked to secure benefits for Marines and families exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Tillis has called for an independent study that can quickly link health issues to exposure so the government can identify its responsibility for providing health care and appropriate funding. He also pushed for health records to reflect locations where servicemembers have been stationed to make faster connections to exposure.
His proposals have the support of 30 veteran service organizations, he said.
“We need to get ahead of it,” Tillis said. “We won’t want to have the years-long struggle to make the presumptions so that they can get the health care they deserve. We cannot afford to take decades.”