After using his considerable political clout on behalf of 9/11 first responders and victims to earn them lifetime benefits, comedian Jon Stewart has turned to advocating for veterans sickened by the burn pits used to destroy waste at overseas military installations.
Stewart released a public service announcement Wednesday to raise awareness about the respiratory and pulmonary diseases, cancers and skin conditions that affect thousands of veterans who lived and worked near the burn pits.
Many of the diseases seen in these personnel are the same as those found in 9/11 responders.
"Now, more than ever, we need to focus on the post-9/11 war veterans who have been suffering from the devastating effects of the massive toxic burn pits they were exposed to overseas," Stewart says in the PSA. "We're long overdue in getting the medical and financial assistance they gravely need."
Stewart's advertisement is part of a massive push this year by veterans organizations to draw attention to the plight of troops sickened by environmental exposures.
In June, a dozen groups teamed up to represent the more than 175,000 veterans who have registered with the Department of Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry.
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A member of the Toxic Exposures in the American Military Coalition, Burn Pits 360, has been advocating for veterans since 2010, shortly after news stories emerged about the hazards posed by the pits, which were used to burn garbage, hospital waste, plastics, batteries, tires and more, in close proximity to bases housing thousands of military personnel.
"We are so grateful and honored to have such a powerful and influential voice to advocate on behalf of the millions of U.S. veterans who are suffering from this silent and debilitating illness," said Rosie Torres, who founded Burn Pits 360 with her husband Le Roy, a retired Army captain who suffers from pulmonary disease related to burn pit exposure.
"Jon's fight to get the 9/11 first responders the appropriate funding to cover their health-related issues was powerful, and we hope his voice will do the same for our post 9/11 war heroes," Rosie Torres said in a statement.
More than 250 burn pits were used in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and elsewhere, the largest being nearly 10 acres across at Joint Base Balad. Many burned 24 hours a day, and some are still in use.
The VA has established a registry for service members and veterans seeking information about burn pits and other environmental exposures. Burn Pits 360 maintains a database containing 6,000 names of veterans who have illnesses they believe are related to burn pit exposure.
The group has documented 130 deaths among its members and has recorded 100 cases of brain cancer, 139 with skin cancer and 116 with lymphoma.
This year, the VA launched its Airborne Hazards and Burn Pits Center of Excellence to promote research on diseases related to such environmental exposures.
But some members of Congress are pressing the VA to do more. They want the VA to classify some illnesses as presumed to be caused by burn pit exposure, thereby fast-tracking health care and benefits for affected veterans. The House also has passed legislation that would allow a family member to list their veteran in the VA registry if the veteran is incapacitated or deceased.
Torres hopes the Stewart PSA will help "drive a viral movement towards this issue."
"But more importantly, I hope millions of vets who are silently suffering will sign up for our national registry so that lawmakers and the VA finally hear our war heroes voices and recognize their illnesses," she said.
As host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" for 16 years, Stewart was popular for his political commentary and news satire. He made headlines earlier this year while testifying before Congress on the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, designed to provide medical care and benefits to first responders and survivors who inhaled toxic fumes, smoke and dust at the World Trade Center.
Stewart lambasted Congress for putting the funding at risk.
The victims and the families wanted to know "why is this is so damn hard and takes so damn long?" he told members of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties.
The bill to extend the fund passed shortly after Stewart's trip to Capitol Hill.
Now, Stewart has turned his focus on those fighting similar diseases -- military personnel and veterans, also changed by 9/11.
"Together we are going to work to get justice, to get healed," Stewart said.