“Where are the American people?” he demanded.
The TV host and veteran advocate took to the stage at the Rolling to Remember event in Washington DC on Saturday afternoon, where veterans, their families and advocates called on Congress to pass the Honoring our PACT Act.
Mr Stewart urged Americans to pressure their senators to pass the comprehensive burn pits bill as he hit out at the tokenistic shows of support for US veterans over Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s hard to be here today and not get frustrated again as I look out in the crowd and see the same thing I always see – veterans and their families and caregivers,” he said.
“But where are the American people? This is Memorial Day weekend.”
He pointed to the tweets and the Memorial Day discounts at restaurants across the country, at a time when veterans are fighting to access the healthcare and disability benefits that they need after serving their country overseas.
“Man, you’re going to read the tweets this weekend. You’re gonna look at the Facebook pages and you’re gonna think to yourself: ‘Oh does America love me. Boy they love us.’
“You’re gonna go to Applebee’s, they’re gonna give you the baby back ribs – 20 per cent off, not even 10 per cent because of how much they support you and yet we come out here today looking for the support of the American people and what do we have behind me?” he said.
“It’s veterans organisations, it’s veterans, it’s their families.
“This country can’t be this broken!”
In less than two weeks’ time, the Senate is expected to vote on the Honoring our PACT Act – recently renamed the SFC Heath Robinson PACT Act in honour of the late Sgt First Class Heath Robinson who died aged 39 from a rare cancer caused by burn pits.
If the landmark bill passes, 23 cancers, respiratory illnesses and other conditions will be presumptively linked to a veterans’ exposure to burn pits while on deployment overseas.
Mr Stewart said that only six more senators are needed to get the bill passed.
Speaking to The Independent at the Washington DC rally on Saturday, he said that he trusts that lawmakers will “do the right thing”.
“There’s a whole group right now who are trying to be political and we had our time for being very confrontational and getting to this point,” he said.
“But right now it’s bipartisan and we’re going to trust that, when it all comes down, that they’re going to do the right thing as Americans.”
Mr Stewart said that all senators who voted to approve a $40bn emergency military and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine should vote to approve a package for the veterans serving the US.
“Any senator that voted to send $40bn to Ukraine can stand up and do the right thing by the veterans of this country,” he said.
The PACT Act is estimated to cost about $1bn in the coming years.
Only 11 senators — all Republicans — opposed sending $40bn to Ukraine.
John Feal, 9/11 responder, veteran advocate and founder of the FealGood Foundation, told The Independent that he questions the patriotism and humanity of any lawmakers who fail to support the bill which has the backing of 65 major veteran organisations.
“There’s 46 Republican senators that should get on this bill just because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
“We’re not just trying to get the bill passed. We’re also trying to challenge their humanity and questioning their patriotism.
“And we want to make sure they do the right thing.
“So whether we get to 60, 68 or 74, those who don’t get on board, America will be their judge.”
Mr Feal was confident that the bill will not only get the 60 votes needed to pass but at least 67 senators voting yes.
“There are good people in the Senate that are going to do the right thing,” he said, adding that when lawmakers return from recess next week “we’ll be all over them” to make sure the bill passes.
The Senate is expected to vote on the bill in the first week of June.
In April, the comprehensive burn pits bill passed the House with all Democrats and 34 Republicans voting in favour of its passage.
Earlier this month, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee announced that Democrats and Republicans had finally reached a bipartisan deal on the bill after months of negotiations.
One key difference between the House version and the agreement reached in the Senate is that there would be a phase-in period for illnesses presumptively linked to toxic exposure.
If the bill passes the Senate vote, it is expected to be signed into law as soon as July.
President Joe Biden, who believes his son Beau Biden could have died as a result of burn pits from his deployment to Iraq, has said he will sign the bill as soon it reaches his desk.
He has urged senators to pass legislation and vowed to better support veterans in his State of the Union address earlier this year after the veteran community has spent years fighting for the US government to take the issue of burn pits seriously.
During America’s post-September 11 wars, huge open-air pits were used to burn mountains of trash including food packaging, human waste and military equipment on US military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thousands of US service members returned home from deployment and developed health conditions including rare cancers, lung conditions, respiratory illnesses and toxic brain injuries caused by breathing in the toxic fumes from the pits.
A staggering 3.5m servicemembers and veterans are estimated to have been exposed to burn pits and airborne toxins while serving the US overseas, according to the Veterans Affairs.
But, at present, the burden of proof is on veterans to prove their condition is directly caused by this toxic exposure.
As a result, only around one in five claims for disability benefits where burn pits are cited are approved by the VA.
Mr Stewart described how US service men and women who returned from America’s post-9/11 wars sick and dying from toxic exposure were then “put on trial” by the government that sent them there to prove that their conditions were directly caused by serving their country.
“This may be one of the lowest hanging fruits of the American legislative agenda,” he said.
“Those that took up arms in defence of this country and its constitution suffered grievous harm in that defence and when they came home we put them on trial.”
He described the pushback from the US government that veterans have long come up against after becoming sick from toxic exposure.
“‘You got cancer? Prove it was us’,” he said
“‘I slept next to a burning field of s**t and jet fuel.’
‘Yeah I dunno, but you also smoke Camel Lights so how do we know it was us?’”
He added: “You shouldn’t have to prove it. You shouldn’t have to be a defendant in a court case about your own health.”