WASHINGTON — Jon Stewart returned to Capitol Hill Tuesday after a 15-year battle fighting for the 9/11 victims' compensation fund. But this time, the comedian is advocating for veterans affected by burn pits.
"Welcome to another exciting episode of 'When is America going to start acting like the great country we keep telling ourselves we are?'" Stewart said during a press conference just outside the Capitol.
Stewart appeared alongside Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., 9/11 first responder advocate John Feal, former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and veterans affected by burn pits to unveil new legislation on the issue.
The bill, Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020, would entitle service members to lifetime health care coverage if they were present at a burn site and suffer from cancer or any respiratory disease linked to carcinogenic toxins.
"To put it simply, the bill says that if you were there, you are covered, plain and simple," Gillibrand said.
The VA calls burn pits a "common" way for soldiers to get rid of waste at military sites. The agency has downplayed the long-term effects of burn pits, but Stewart said that being in close proximity to the sites may have regularly exposed soldiers to toxic fumes.
"The fight starts again," Stewart said. "The only difference between the 9/11 responders at Ground Zero who are sick and dying from toxic exposure is that that was caused by a terrorist attack on our country," Stewart 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."
Along with Stewart, Feal has been a regular presence in Washington in the last two decades to advocate for first responders.
"It doesn't matter who's president, it doesn't matter who's in control of the House or the Senate," Feal said. "Whoever gets in our way and opposes us— you guys saw what we did to Congress for 15 years— we're gonna punch them in the mouth."
Gillibrand told NBC News that she is "certain" Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will support the bill if elected.
Danielle Robinson's husband, a veteran, died this past May after being exposed to burn pit fumes.
"He was honestly the ideal soldier, he was a non-smoker, he didn’t drink, he was in impeccable shape, and he served and did it so in great honor and he honestly was one of the strongest people I know," Robinson said.
Stewart criticized legislators who are currently at a stalemate over how and when to provide Americans with another round of coronavirus relief funding.
"It’s bulls---," said Stewart. "It’s bulls---. It's about money. And we’re here today to say we’re not going to let this happen in the dark."