How Jon Stewart is leading the fight for veterans suffering from burn pit exposure

“Really, ‘thank you’ means getting off your ass and getting involved and helping them. We’re better than this.”

No matter who wins the presidential election, talk show host Jon Stewart and activist and Army veteran John Feal say they’ve got a plan to push through legislation to get health care, research, and recognition for service members exposed to toxins—particularly the massive pits used to burn trash in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know about it sooner,” Feal said. “If I had, I would have had my team of 9/11 first responders doing double duty. I’m bringing them back for this.”

They both recognize the fight for burn pit veterans has been tough. Military Times first reported the potential for toxic exposure in the pits in 2008. Since then, the same experts have appeared over and over again before the same panels on the Hill to argue for benefits and presumption for burn pit veterans, but in August, the War Horse reported that just over 10,000 claims had been filed for burn pit exposure—though 200,000 people have signed up for Veterans Affairs’ burn pit registry—and of those, only just over 2,000 had their claims approved.

“Veterans who got sick are gullible, just like 9/11 responders who got sick,” Feal said, “because we just thought, ‘Oh. The government’s going to do the right thing and take care of us.’”

Still, he said, “Every tragedy gives birth to advocates.”

Today’s election could make a difference because one candidate has said he plans to support the fight because of the way burn pits may have affected his own family. The advocates say they’ll use their platform to fight not just for the burn pit veterans, but the veterans of all generations who have been exposed to toxins, no matter who wins the election. And Feal and Stewart say they already have a plan—one that has been honed in the previous fight for benefits for the first responders at the World Trade Center and that should be embraced by anyone—from politician to everyday American—who has thanked a veteran for their service but hasn’t followed through with action.

The two will be honored Thursday for their work by the Pat Tillman Foundation (along with War Horse author Jackie Munn for her work as a public health nurse practitioner). They spoke to War Horse through an online video conference—Stewart in a hoodie and rattling his drumsticks as he spoke, and Feal in his office surrounded by mementos of his work.

A Government that Pays Lip Service

During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military burned trash—as much as 250 tons a day—in open pits as close as one mile to troops’ living quarters. Burning trash itself releases a chemical called dioxin, which is the same ingredient in Agent Orange that caused problems for Vietnam War veterans. It’s also one of the reasons cities in the United States don’t burn trash in open pits and generally don’t allow people to do so in their yards. But in addition to paper and wood, the military included Styrofoam containers from the dining facilities, medical waste, unexploded ordnance, computers, tires—anything that needed to be disposed of—and then set it aflame using jet fuel.

To Feal and Stewart, this sounded similar to another issue they’re passionate about: the flaming wreckage left at Ground Zero after terrorists drove planes into the World Trade Center. The two men are well-known for their efforts in getting Congress to pass legislation for the firefighters, police, health care workers and other volunteers who worked in the burning aftermath of the World Trade Center to get healthcare and research after they were exposed to toxins similar to those found in the burn pits of Iraq and Afghanistan

Ultimately, they guilted Congress into benefits for the 9/11 first responders after a video of Stewart lambasting representatives for their hypocrisy in not following through on their promises went viral.

Soon after, Rosie Torres, co-founder of Burn Pits 360, approached the two about how similar the fate of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans was in both history and exposure: They went to war after the attacks of 9/11, and the toxins released by the burn pits were similar all the way down to the jet fuel used to light them to the toxins released at Ground Zero.

“You know what drew me was Rosie,” Feal said. “Other than the big picture, which was obvious, I see myself. I see a lot of Rosie in me 15 years ago.” He also sees her struggles: He was accused of making up numbers, being a renegade, and of being a loose cannon.

“But science caught up to us and gave us validity,” he said.

Torres’ pitch appealed to them both because it spoke, once again, to a government that seemed not to care.

“It’s the injustice of a government that pays lip service to people’s sacrifice and patriotism, yet when those people need help, they’re abandoned,” Stewart said. “It’s that combination of injustice, hypocrisy, [and] real need—urgent need.”

Paper Patriotism

Both the comedian and the 9/11 first responder say one candidate will make their jobs easier: Joe Biden. On the surface, that’s a pretty easy claim to make: Biden has said he believes his son Beau’s brain cancer may have been connected to the burn pits.

“He volunteered to join the National Guard at age 32 because he thought he had an obligation to go,” Biden said, according to CBS News. “And because of exposure to burn pits—in my view, I can’t prove it yet—he came back with Stage Four glioblastoma.”

If elected, Biden promised a study of Post-9/11 veterans exposed to toxins, including burn pits.

And while President Donald Trump has signed legislation requiring a plan to shut down the burn pits, his administration opposed expanding benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange and did so only after it was mandated by the courts and Congress.

Feal called the burn pits an issue “that’s dear to Joe Biden,” adding that, depending on the outcome of the election, “Our work is easier, or our work is a lot harder.”

Still, “I don’t think anybody’s under any illusion that this is a breeze either way,” Stewart said. “The truth of the matter is we’re upside-down in terms of what [Veterans Affairs’] role should be, and that’s maybe a tougher pull, but the VA should be advocating, not resisting, soldiers’ claims.”

No matter the election outcome, they said they would force the issue through media appearances and rallies, such as the one they have planned—socially distanced and masked—for Veterans Day in Washington.

An Election Day push seemed fitting as there has been an increase of what Stewart calls “paper patriotism”: Even as people get all up in their feels about players kneeling at football games—claiming that it’s disrespectful to troops—complain about the lack of patriotism in schools, and repost social media memes about the bravery of heroes, many of them argue against veterans’ “entitlements,” such as benefits after an injury. A vote, Stewart says, is a way to support veterans.

“Really, ‘thank you’ means getting off your ass and getting involved and helping them,” Feal said. “We’re better than this.”

‘We Don’t Learn from Our Mistakes’

Some veterans reading this piece may feel like they’ve heard this story before: Vietnam War veterans, 50 years later, are still fighting for benefits after being exposed to Agent Orange. One out of four 1991 Gulf War veterans are sick, but research from VA has been inconclusive—and often focused on veterans’ psychological issues, while outside research has shown physical injury from a cocktail of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, including bug spray, anti-nerve agent pills, and sarin gas. Veterans serving in the 1950s had to fight for benefits after being intentionally exposed to atomic bombs.

Those seemingly never-ending battles have led the pair to several conclusions: They must fight for all veterans who have been exposed to toxins; people claiming to be patriots need to put their money and actions where their mouths are; and Congress members need to plan not only for war, but also for taking care of veterans when they come home.

“We don’t learn from our mistakes,” Feal said. “If it’s not burn pits or it’s not 9/11, go back to World War II. My grandpa used to tell me how they screwed him over.”

Stewart said it went further back than that: After the Revolutionary War, veterans rebelled after receiving little compensation for their service. After World War I, they gathered in tents on the National Mall to demand a bonus they had been promised, and the same Gen. Douglas MacArthur they had fought under ordered the desperate, Depression-era men cleared from the Capitol grounds.

“Every time, we honor our military, we thank them for their service, and we fuck them over the first chance we get,” Stewart said.

A Plan Moving Forward

Because of their work with the first responders, they’re confident they can help military veterans, too.

“John really marshaled all these forces for the 9/11 community,” Stewart said.

Before Feal came in, the advocates worked separately, Stewart said. Each “fiefdom” had its own piece of legislation, but there was no centralized push to ensure legislation didn’t overlap and that people weren’t working against each other. He was able to gather everyone together for a common cause. Now the two are working to join the 9/11 first-responders with the burn pit veterans for another Hill fight: The 9/11 veterans will guide the burn pit veterans through the congressional buildings, introduce them to people, and show them how to have a meeting.

“The American people need to know the veterans … are from every congressional district, and they’re sick and dying or have died,” Feal said. “And the federal government has failed them. We’re trying to not only pass legislation, but we want to change the culture of how the United States military treats their veterans.”

If the United States can spend money to send service members to war, it should also set aside money to take care of them when they return home, he said.

Feal said his mind was blown when he realized how long the burn pit advocates had been fighting for their benefits. His own activism began with a trip to Washington in 2005.

“I kind of feel like they’ve been at it as long as me,” Feal said of the burn pit veterans. “Jon and I sat down with them in March, and we went around the room and I asked, well, how often does everybody go to DC?”

When he learned most organizations went once every six months for a lobby day, have a meeting, and take some pictures, Feal was not impressed.

“I was like, ‘You guys all need to go rent a treadmill because we go like two, three, four times a month,’” Feal said.

And when they go, they bring a team of people and have dozens of meetings a day, he said. In addition, they hit congress members with a constant onslaught of emails and phones calls and … faxes.

The advocates call upon veterans, family members, and friends to call and to email—just keep the drumbeat thumping, Feal said.

“That’s how you move the needle,” Feal said.

The Pat Tillman Foundation will honor Jon Stewart and John Feal Thursday for their work with first responders and burn pit veterans. War Horse author Jackie Munn will also be honored for her work as a public health nurse practitioner. Photo courtesy of the Pat Tillman Foundation.

But neither of them are walking the halls of Congress right now.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic—as dangerous as the pandemic is for everybody—it’s even more dangerous for those who have suffered pulmonary injury and bronchiolitis and all these other conditions that have come from burn pits,” Stewart said.

“But it also throws a wrench into that kind of advocacy.”

It Comes Down to Money

Stewart said it frustrated him to watch Feal spend so much time trying to get something that seemed easy. “The frustration of watching what he had to go through to get something that is the lowest possible hanging fruit you can imagine in a functioning society,” he said. “In a functioning society, if you can’t take care of those who have taken care of you, what chance do the rest of us have?”

With the first responders, Stewart said it was difficult to push legislation through because it was seen as a “New York” issue, rather than an American issue, and, because New York is a blue state, Republicans in Congress didn’t want to support the bill, he said. (Ultimately, Sen. Rand Paul, R, Kentucky, and Sen. Mike Lee, R, Utah, were the only “no” votes.)

The burn pit issue is similarly simple, Stewart said.

“Any time they would say, ‘We don’t have the science,’ I would say to any of them, ‘Go back to your district and dig a football-field-sized pit and put all the garbage in your town along with whatever hazardous materials come by and pour jet fuel all over it and light it on fire,” he said. “And then come to me and tell me, ‘Jeez. We don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Yes you do.”

It comes down to money, Stewart and Feal said.

“The sad truth is the money’s already in the system, they’re just not allocating it to that end,” Stewart said. He explained that $400 billion goes to Defense Department contractors—the same contractors who made decisions about how to dispose of trash in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Yet those defense contractors are not liable for any of the decisions they make that might harm our soldiers.”

Stewart said the military-civilian divide also plays a part because such a small part of the population has served: “If you don’t have skin in the game, it’s very easy to stand at a football game for the National Anthem,” he said. “But if that’s the extent of your support, then it’s really not worth a whole lot.”