Comedian Jon Stewart on Tuesday said military forces and veterans who were exposed to toxic environments are getting the same “cold shoulder” as 9/11 responders did for coverage of their health care costs.
In an interview with McClatchy, Stewart provided new details on how he thinks those veterans should be helped — including levying a 2 percent tax on defense contractors.
He was on Capitol Hill to show support for new Senate legislation to help those veterans.
“We can’t keep going to war, and have the money to go to war, if you don’t have the money to take care of the consequences for those who fight those wars for you,” Stewart said, standing with several veterans behind replicas of the “Radiation” and “Chemical Weapons” warning signs that had marked the base at Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, or K2.
K2 was a former Soviet base where U.S. forces deployed immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Many veterans who served there are now facing chronic illnesses, or have died, as a result of exposure to toxins.
Stewart was previously instrumental in getting Congress to approve funding to address the debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases faced by firefighters, medics and police officers who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
Stewart told McClatchy that Congress should levy the tax on defense contracts to pay for health care for military service members.
“This is an eminently fixable problem, and the solution is right in front of us,” he said. “And it wouldn’t cost taxpayers any other money. The money is already in the system.”
Stewart has raised the idea previously and faced questions on whether it would lead to contractors increasing their prices to cover the tax.
He said Congress has the power to keep those costs in line.
“They’re the customer,” he said, pointing toward the U.S. Capitol. “They’re the only customer. Nobody else buys weapons like that. So if they’re [contractors] jacking the price, who can push back on that?”
“Veterans shouldn’t have to suffer [because of] the idea that defense contractors are going to jack up the prices more,” he said.
When the funding was approved to help with health care costs for the 9/11 responders, “we thought it was done,” Stewart said at a press event Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
“But it turns out that the warfighters that were sent to prosecute the battle, based on the attack of 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. “And so the fight starts again.”
Stewart said he supports legislation introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would vastly expand the number of deployment locations around the world that would qualify a veteran for health care based on an assumption of toxic exposure.
That would be critical to hundreds of thousands of veterans who have reported they were based at locations with massive open-air fire pits, where the military burned human waste, jet fuel, computer parts, rubber, metals and other trash that released harmful particles into the air.
It would also assist as many as 10,000 service members who were assigned to K2 who have faced years-long struggles with the government to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs that their illnesses are connected to their military service.
An estimated 3.5 million veterans faced some form of toxic exposure during the last two decades of deployments in war zones, Gillibrand said. More than 200,000 have recorded respiratory or other severe illnesses on the VA’s burn pit registry, only about 2,000 of those cases have had claims approved for illnesses tied to burn pit exposure, Gillibrand said.
Army Sgt. Angela Ulloa served for 11 months in 2005 at K2, a former Soviet base riddled with underground pools of fuel, chemical weapons remnants, burn pits and low-level processed uranium.
“We heard something was wrong with the soil. No one was supposed to dig there. There were also ponds of bright green liquid that changed color. They would change color to this burnt orange, and then black. We were told uranium was in the water,” she said.
Chronic exhaustion, severe weight loss and weakness started while at the base. Severe dizzy spells and intense joint pain began after she got home.
“I thought it was the price of war,” Ulloa said. Hundreds of K2 veterans have reported cancers, many have died. Those veterans have tried, largely unsuccessfully, to have their health claims approved by the VA.
For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have said there is not enough data to determine whether toxic exposure made veterans ill from burn pits, toxic soil or cancer-linked chemicals in the military’s firefighting foam.
Earlier this year McClatchy obtained classified documents that showed the extent of the contamination at K2 and that the Defense Department knew about it as early as 2001.
Stewart said the government’s argument about having a lack of data is just a way to avoid paying the medical cost of treating the hundreds of thousands of ill veterans.
“They’re always going to pretend it’s about science but it’s about money,” Stewart said. “The science is clear. And the proof of that is, I challenge any of these Congress people to dig a 10-acre pit, fill all the town’s garbage in it, and pour jet fuel on it, and then let me know how your people are feeling.”