Jon Stewart, Lawmakers Join Forces To Help Veterans Who Say Toxic Burn Pit Exposure Made Them Sick


Tuesday, April 13th 2021, 12:49 pm
By: CBS News


Lawmakers from both parties will join veterans on Tuesday for a new effort in Congress to help service members who say that toxic burn pits made them sick. They have been linked to some cancers and other ailments like lung issues. 

The VA requires veterans to pay for tests to prove that any illness is linked to exposure to those fumes. Advocates say the majority of claims are denied.

In Iraq and Afghanistan some overseas bases used jet fuel to ignite and dispose of waste that was dumped and burned in giant pits. More than three million U.S. veterans may have come into contact with dangerous fumes.

Jen Howard said her husband, Jason, was one of those veterans who were exposed.

"When you sign up and join the military, you are told you will be taken care of. You're told if you go over... Sorry, I just need a minute," she tearfully told CBS News' Kris Van Cleave.

Despite his service, she said her husband has not been taken care of by the VA.

"By organizations that help vets? Yes, by the VA system? No," Howard said.

A Marine veteran, Jason did two tours in Iraq. While there, his wife said he worried about exposure to toxic fumes from pits where trash was burned.

"And they burned pretty much everything, they couldn't necessarily read what all of the chemicals were because it was in, I guess, Arabic. They just said it was just smoke, fire burning, burning, waste burning, human waste burning, chemical waste," Howard said.

Fourteen years later, the quiet, dedicated father began having headaches. Within months doctors diagnosed Jason with glioblastoma, the same terminal brain cancer that killed President Biden's son, Beau, who spent a year serving in Iraq.

Then-candidate Biden brought up the issue of burn pits in a 2019 town hall where he said there is a connection between Beau's deployment and his cancer diagnosis.

"Because of his exposure to burn pits, in my view, I can't prove it yet, he came back with stage four glioblastoma," Biden said.

At least 230 burn pits were used at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the largest was at Balad Air Base, where a 10-acre trash heap was burning 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In 2015, an inspector general report called it "Indefensible that U.S. military personnel who are already at risk fighting overseas were put at further risk from the use of open-air burn pits."

"I kept saying my husband is going to die before you even give him a yes or no," Howard said.

To get help from the VA, Jason Howard and other suffering veterans have to first provide a direct service connection between their ailments and burn pit exposure. Jason's paperwork is still being reviewed.

"This should not be left to veterans to dig in their own pockets, to do their own research, to hire their own lawyers, to prove that they were exposed," New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said.

She has proposed new legislation that would make the process easier, requiring a veteran to prove only they were deployed in an area where burn pits were used in order to qualify for help from the VA.

"If you get any of these diseases, any of these cancers that are known to be linked with the kind of toxins that were emitted, that you are presumptively covered, and you will receive the health care benefits that you've earned," Gillibrand said.

Her bill has bipartisan support. Republican Senator Marco Rubio is a co-sponsor. Comedian Jon Stewart is bringing some star power to the bill. Stewart joined the cause two years ago, seeing parallels in his battle to create permanent benefits for 9/11 first responders.

"This is the true cost of war. Don't make the veterans pay for your budgeting error. If you didn't put this into the total price, that's on you, not on the families, not on the veterans, that's on the government," Stewart said.

"What is your message to lawmakers? Because they've listened to you in the past," Van Cleave asked.

"Congress is a wonderful place to wave a flag. Well, you can't just say we support the troops and then abandon them when the troops need support," Stewart replied.

The Howards hope with this legislation, the next family in their situation won't spend their last days together battling the veteran's administration.

President Biden has said he wants this issue addressed. Senator Gillibrand said she hopes to get a vote on the bill this year. The VA declined to comment on this specific legislation, but a spokesman pointed to ongoing research into the effects of burn pits and the effort to sign more than 200 thousand veterans up for its burn pit registry, but that doesn't guarantee them coverage.