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.