WASHINGTON — Known for his passionate defense for 9/11 first responders, Jon Stewart, U.S. Sen. Kristin Gillibrand and other 9/11 advocates criticized Congress and the federal government again, this time on behalf of veterans and service members sickened by exposure to burning pits of toxic trash.
“Welcome to another exciting episode of, ‘When is America going to start acting like the great country we keep telling ourselves we are?’” the former “Daily Show” host told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
Dozens of veterans and family members stood side by side with Stewart and Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a scene reminiscent of their long push for 9/11 treatment, with ailing veterans and surviving spouses telling how they and loved ones are suffering because the military decided to incinerate its war waste in open-air pits.
“Our veterans lived 24 hours a day, seven days a week next to toxic smoke, dioxins, everything,” said Stewart. “And now they’re being told, ‘Hey, man, is that stuff bad for you? I don’t know. We don’t have the science.’ It’s bull---t. It’s bull---t. It’s about money. And we’re here today to say we’re not going to let this happen in the dark.”
The fire pits at ground zero were fed, in part, by the jet fuel that was released when the two planes hit the World Trade Center Towers. The fumes from the fuselage were similar to smoke-borne damage suffered by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to Gillibrand’s office, more than 3.5 million members of the armed services may have been exposed to burn pits. The Veterans Administration runs a registry for veterans to self-report burn pit illnesses that lists 212,000.
“It turns out that the warfighters that were sent to prosecute the battle, based on the attack on 9/11, now suffer the same injuries and illnesses that the first responders suffered from. And they’re getting the same cold shoulder from Congress,” Stewart said.
“The only difference between the first responders at ground zero who are sick and dying from toxic exposure is that that was caused by a terrorist attack on our country,” he said. “The veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering the same illnesses and the same toxic exposure because of the actions of our own government.”
The other similarity between the warfighters and first responders is that the government has been unwilling to acknowledge their problem, with most people who apply for help from the VA getting denied. The Department of Veterans Affairs says there is insufficient scientific evidence to prove the breathing problems, rare cancers and other health problems reported by veterans is linked to the toxic smoke.
One of those is Le Roy Torres, a Texan veteran and police officer who is disabled from his illnesses, and founded the activist group Burn Pits 360 with his wife after he couldn’t get care. He has also been able to sue the military contractors hired to do the burning because they have immunity from suits along with the military.
“None of us returned from war with the hopes of losing our careers, our homes, our families, our employees, and our government continues to hide behind the curtain of sovereign immunity,” Rosie Torres said, reading a statement from her husband.
Gillibrand’s bill, The Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act, would remove the need for people like Torres to present conclusive evidence. It would cover many of the same diseases the plague 9/11 responders, including asthma, cancer, chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other breathing disorders.
Gillibrand said the military’s insistence on waiting for science that could take decades was just a dodge to avoid facing an expensive responsibility.
“Jon and John are exactly right,” said Gillibrand. “The money is there. They’re afraid of spending money, they refuse to spend money. They don’t want to spend money — they never have. But because of this effort, they will.”
The event was somewhat overshadowed by a rally held by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., apparently to roll out House Republicans’ election-year agenda, promising to cut taxes and fight for America.
The lawmakers’ loudspeaker system incensed some at the veterans’ event, including Feal.
“I listened and he said, ‘America is worth fighting for.’ Then they clapped,” said Feal. “But not one person on those steps stopped to talk to any of these heroes behind me. Not one person said ‘Thank you for your service. Are you OK? How can I help?’ You just said America is worth fighting for? What the … ? Are you kidding me?”
“Boy, what a metaphor for them, drowning out the voices of veterans who are trying to get health care, with some circle jerk that, who knows what they’re doing over there,” said Stewart.
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