In a fiery address at the U.S. Capitol, Stewart blasted lawmakers for not granting broad care and benefits for veterans sickened by burn pits, and said the U.S. government has failed service members by setting an “almost impossibly high bar” to prove they were exposed to toxins.
“War after war after war, we treat them as expendable. And when they come home, we’re done with them,” Stewart told The Washington Post in an interview.
“If an enemy did this to us, we’d … bomb them into oblivion. We did it to ourselves and we’re ignoring it.”
As many as 3.5 million veterans were exposed to burn pits and toxic chemicals from the first Gulf War through the global war on terror, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who proposed the legislation with Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.). The legislation would grant presumption of exposure if veterans have certain conditions and served in one of 33 countries where troops were deployed after Sept. 11, Gillibrand said.
That would reduce the burden of evidence they must currently provide, she said, such as exposure to specific burn pits and authoritative links to illnesses. That high bar had led to many denials of claims and care, advocates and Gillibrand said.
VA has maintained there is not enough scientific evidence to conclusively link exposure and chronic health problems and evaluates claims on an individual basis.
Danielle Robinson said her husband, Heath Robinson, developed stage-4 lung cancer after serving with the Ohio National Guard in Iraq, where he lived near burn pits. Doctors said his condition was consistent with toxic exposure, Robinson told reporters. He died in May.
“My husband is dead because America poisoned its soldiers,” Robinson said.
Gillibrand told The Post she and other advocates have tried for years to broaden the scope of benefits and care for sickened veterans, contending with other lawmakers and VA.
“We’ve tried everything else,” Gillibrand said. But the plight of New York first responders, she said, provided a helpful road map of what toxins from the World Trade Center ended up in the lungs of police and firefighters after electronics, building materials and other substances burned in a jet fuel-soaked fire.
“We did the epidemiology studies. We know the toxins created on 9/11 were the same at these burn pits,” she said.
VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said eligibility requirements for VA health care and disability compensation are set by Congress. VA monitors the latest research on burn pits, she said, including a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study issued Friday.
None of 27 severe illnesses met sufficient criteria to be linked to toxic exposure, the report found, and other conditions like chronic persistent cough, shortness of breath and wheezing had limited or suggestive links.
Noel said the study found “insufficient evidence” linking respiratory illnesses and combat deployments. The report authors cautioned against such an interpretation, saying incomplete data prevented researchers from drawing definitive conclusions.
A tiny number of compensation claims filed since 2007 — more than 14,000 out of nearly 16 million — are related to burn pits, Noel said. She did not say how many of those were denied.
VA could serve a more proactive role as a veterans health advocate, Stewart said. “But VA is being purposefully obtuse, and they’re purposely misdirecting people as a way of avoiding responsibility … they put veterans on almost a literal trial.”
VA opened a burn pit registry for veterans to document health concerns, and recently noted the 200,000th registrant — a fraction of the overall number that may have been exposed.
“It is past time that veterans exposed to these deadly toxins receive the benefits that they deserve,” said Jeremy Butler, the chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group that joined other veterans groups in endorsing the proposed bill.
In Iraq, one notoriously large burn pit in Balad churned continuously for years, at one point incinerating 147 tons of waste per day — nearly double the amount generated by Juneau, Alaska, which was comparably sized, Military Times reported.
Military officials, including an Air Force bioenvironmental engineer in 2006, cautioned that the Balad burn pit posed acute and chronic health risks, Military Times reported.
The things burned there and elsewhere, Stewart noted, also included the remnants of firearms.
“The smoking gun,” Stewart said, “is literally smoking guns.”