Jon Stewart Uses His Celebrity To Bring Attention To Vets Exposed To Burn Pits The comedian and activist is helping to launch a new campaign to fight for war veterans who say they are sick because of exposure to burn pits and other toxins in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Jon Stewart Uses His Celebrity To Bring Attention To Vets Exposed To Burn Pits

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After comedian Jon Stewart retired from television, his most prominent work was for Sept. 11 first responders, people who got sick after working in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Now Stewart has joined a similar fight for war veterans exposed to toxic burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Standing on the steps of the Capitol, Stewart says he didn't expect to be back in Washington after his last testimony for the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund.


JON STEWART: We thought it was done, but it turns out the veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering the same illnesses and the same toxic exposure because of the actions of our own government.

LAWRENCE: Hundreds of thousands of troops have signed on the VA's registry for those who believe they were exposed to burn pits, open trash heaps sometimes bigger than football fields burned with jet fuel. Stewart says Congress should try making burn pits in their home districts.


STEWART: And when your constituents come to you and say, what's with this thick, black, acrid smoke, just say, I think it's fine. But if you have lung cancer, you can't actually prove that it was the smoke.

LAWRENCE: That's what veterans say they hear from the VA when they try to get health benefits based on toxic exposure overseas. As recently as last week, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that found no link between the burn pits and these illnesses. That's not the same as proving there is no link.


DAVID SHULKIN: What the National Academy of Sciences said last Friday is there is no data.

LAWRENCE: Former VA Secretary David Shulkin spoke at the same event.


SHULKIN: When there is no data available but there's a plausible explanation and veterans are suffering, we have to give them the benefit of doubt.

LAWRENCE: That's the opposite of what the government has done so far for people like Danielle Robinson. Her husband was posted next to a burn pit in Iraq. He died in April, leaving behind a young daughter.


DANIELLE ROBINSON: Now paint this picture in your head - a little girl walking into the bathroom on multiple occasions, finding her daddy bent over, gasping for breath and blood is everywhere on the floor.

LAWRENCE: Robinson, a widow at 35, thanked Jon Stewart for speaking out.


ROBINSON: But at the same time, it's a national disgrace that our war heroes, our veterans who willingly signed up to fight for our country, need celebrities to speak out on their behalf. Veterans' voices don't seem to matter to the very same people who voted to send them off to war in the first place.

LAWRENCE: Many have compared the burn pit issue to Agent Orange, a defoliant that made thousands of Vietnam vets sick. Many of them still aren't covered by VA. Now a bill sponsored by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and California Rep. Raul Ruiz would cover anyone who served at dozens of documented toxic exposure sites. Ruiz said Congress should act now.


RAUL RUIZ: Our veterans cannot afford to wait decades for that perfect 20-year, longitudinal, double-cohort study like they were forced to with Agent Orange. People are dying.

LAWRENCE: Members of Congress walked by as the event went on. Comedian-turned-activist Jon Stewart said this is just the beginning.


STEWART: And we're going to fill this space with veterans and victims and advocates until those Congress people that you saw walk by here with not a care in the world about what these families have gone through - until they're forced to face it.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.


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