Jon Stewart Emotionally Advocates for Veterans Exposed to Toxic Fumes: 'An IED That Goes Off in Your Body'

·4 min read
Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart

John Lamparski/WireImage Jon Stewart

In emotional testimony delivered before a House Veterans' Affairs Committee roundtable Wednesday, Jon Stewart urged lawmakers to help former service members who are battling diseases after exposure to toxic burn pits in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Burn pits — which have been historically used by the U.S military to burn everything from trash to human waste for decades — have exposed millions of service members to toxic fumes.

Members of Congress have estimated that some 3.5 million veterans who deployed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks may have been exposed, ABC News reported last year — exposure that some studies suggest could have contributed to aggressive, terminal cancers.

A 2021 VA-funded research proposal, for instance, found that "the incident rate of breast cancer for active duty women is seven times higher than the average incident rate of fifteen other cancer types across all service members."

Still, veterans who have submitted claims to the Department of Veterans Affairs have been met with resistance, and in some cases seen their claims denied entirely.

Though the Biden administration recently announced a policy that would make it easier for vets to receive benefits after being exposed to toxic burn pits, it could still take months or years to see those benefits — leading activists like Stewart to call on Congress to take further action.

"There really should be one job here and one job alone, and that is: How do we implement first-rate toxic exposure healthcare for our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans," the comedian and filmmaker, 58, said before the committee on Wednesday, adding that the VA has instituted first-rate facilities and programs for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, but it "took intention and it took money" to get those services.

Stewart continued: "And we have to establish that for the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, because the [toxins are] an IED that goes off in your body five years later, 10 years later, 15 years later.And yet the burden of proof and scrutiny is always on the veteran."

He added that funding for the VA's Burn Pit Center for Excellence is "$6-$7 million a year," in 2022.

"To give you just a perspective on that, they spend $90 million a year on Viagra," Stewart said, later adding: "The VA and this body have to remove their blinders."

Stewart is a long-time advocate for the thousands of 9/11 responders who developed health issues after exposure to debris and toxins from the World Trade Center site.

In 2019, he helped get the bill for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund reauthorized, after he delivered a passionate speech before Congress. That bill allows 9/11 victims and their families to file claims with the fund up until 2090.

Speaking on Wednesday, Stewart said the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund was model that could be followed for those battling diseases after being exposed to toxic burn pits "if the will was there."

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Jon Stewart C-Span
Jon Stewart C-Span

C-Span Jon Stewart

After a more-than six year hiatus from television, the comedian made his return to the small screen in the fall, when The Problem with Jon Stewart premiered on Apple TV+ in September.

The series — which has already been picked up for multiple seasons — was described in a press release as a "single-issue series, taking a deep-dive on the most important topics that are currently part of the national conversation. ... Stewart will be in discussion with the people who are impacted by the issue — as well as those who have a hand in creating the impact. Together, they will discuss tangible steps that can lead to a solutionary path forward."

A companion series podcast extends that conversation, with the first episode focusing on the veterans seeking benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs as a result of being exposed to toxins during their military service.

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"This delay is killing people," Stewart said in the podcast. "That's not hyperbole. This is about taking care of a problem that we caused through our negligence to our own service people."

President Joe Biden's own son Beau served in Iraq before his 2015 death from brain cancer at age 46.

Biden, for one, has said he suspects burn pits may have contributed to Beau's death.

"Because of his exposure to burn pits, in my view — I can't prove it yet — he came back with stage four glioblastoma," Biden said in 2019.

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