Season 1
Episode 1

Burn pits were standard military practice during the wars we waged in the Middle East and now tens of thousands of our veterans are suffering from respiratory diseases, cancers, and other illnesses caused by exposure to the toxic black smoke the pits emitted. That is awful enough, but the Department of Veterans Affairs was also routinely refusing to acknowledge that these illnesses were connected to veterans’ service and was denying them benefits.

Scroll down to learn more about how the veterans we had on our episode and other advocacy groups worked tirelessly to pass legislation that expands access to care for veterans exposed to toxins during service.

The problem with burn pits

This episode takes a deep dive into the horrifying realities of burn pits — giant holes that get filled with all kinds of trash, from plastic bags to entire trucks to human body parts and then gets lit on fire with jet fuel. The U.S. military routinely used burn pits to dispose of trash during our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others. In the process, some 3.5 million soldiers were potentially exposed to the carcinogen-laden smoke released by these massive burning piles. Now many of those soldiers have developed rare respiratory problems and cancers as a result of their exposure to burn pits. There is ample science showing that the chemicals released by burn pits are linked to these diseases, but for a long time the Department of Veterans Affairs claimed there wasn't yet enough science to prove the service connection. This allowed the VA to deny benefit claims for these vets and to deprive them of the care they desperately needed. To put it nicely, it was a total fucking mess.

The government kinda actually worked!

As we covered in our episode, the burden of proof typically fell on veterans to show the VA that their condition was connected to their service. Weirdly, the VA’s own legal standard for approving disability claims says that the veteran should always get the benefit of the doubt, but that is not what was happening in practice. The VA instead was denying more than 70% of the claims related to toxic exposure.

Congress goes big

After our episode aired, many veterans' service organizations to lobby very hard on Capitol Hill. In 2021, Sen. Tester (D-MT) introduced The Cost of War Act, and a companion bill was introduced in the House, sponsored by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), called Honoring Our PACT Act of 2021. Jon became a vocal advocate for passing this legislation because it took the burden off the vets and established a path for handling any toxic exposures that occurs in future wars.

This is also a deeply personal cause for President Biden, who believes his son Beau’s brain cancer may have been caused by burn pit exposure during his service in Iraq. His commitment to the issue was clearly demonstrated when he devoted several minutes of his State of the Union address to discuss our duty to care for veterans who were exposed to burn pits.

People over political games

After initially passing both the House and the Senate in the spring of 2022, the Honoring Our PACT Act ran into a small procedural hiccup and had to return to the House for another vote. It made its way back to the Senate, where a group of Republicans who had previously supported it suddenly flipped their votes and claimed there was a "budgetary gimmick" introduced by Democrats. As Jon pointed out in numerous interviews, there was nothing added. (Only one sentence had been removed related to the procedural issue.)

Finally, after a ton of pressure from veterans and their advocates — who literally camped out outside the Capitol until the Senate agreed to vote on it again — the Honoring Our PACT Act was passed on August 2, 2022, in a vote of 86-11.

The sweeping legislation establishes presumption for more than 20 diseases that are linked to burn pit exposure. This is a huge victory for everyone who has been fighting so hard for so long to get burn pit victims the support and health care they deserve.

The Real Cost of War

Something that kept coming up as we worked on this episode was just how disconnected the American public is from the horrible realities of war. Only one half of one percent of Americans are on active duty in the military. That’s such a tiny number! And it makes it incredibly easy for the rest of us to ignore their sacrifices because they have zero impact on our lives or wallets. That’s a stark difference from, say, how much civilian life changed during World War II.

Fixing our treatment of our veterans in the long run, as Admiral Michael Mullen explains in the panel below, means Americans having skin in the game. That goes for regular people like us (many of whom could be drafted, don’t forget), but it’s also about the powers that run the military industrial complex. The politicians who’ve sent us to war and the defense contractors who run these wars aren’t the ones sending their kids into battle. These contractors only stand to profit, quite literally, from going to war. Meanwhile, some of the most marginalized Americans are the ones who are shipped off to fight on the front lines.

Here’s what Retired Army infantryman Isiah James said on our Veterans Day podcast episode:

"It happens every generation. Every generation we go to war. You can look back and look at Civil War veterans trying to get benefits. You can look back at Desert Storm veterans trying to get benefits. Vietnam veterans, it's the same damn thing. So we have a choice. We just ended the longest war we've ever had. So we can decide to lead with diplomacy and not fight these wars — to never have these things again. Or we can decide to pump more money into the defense industry."

We haven't yet found the magic button that ends all war. (We know it does seem like something Apple could invent, and yet they keep telling us they can’t??) So we’re going to have to keep doing this the hard way. It’s got to be about changing the conversation around war and pushing politicians to dismantle the military industrial complex — because the very best way we can thank our veterans of wars past for their service is by ensuring that we never create another generation of veterans.

We always have money for war. And we always have to balance the budget then on the backs of soldiers and veterans when they come back.

Jon Stewart

Learn about Wes' fight

If I can prevent just one family from going through what I'm going through right now, I can kneel before my maker and say, 'I did a lot of bad shit in my life. But I did one good thing, and I advocated for those that didn't know.'

We first met Wes when he appeared as a panelist on our show and spoke so powerfully about his battle with stage 4 colon cancer, which is believed to be a result of his exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. His struggle to get proper care from the VA cost him critical time, and he devoted himself to fighting to fix this broken system.

Wes often said that if he was able to prevent even one person from having to go through what he did, then he would have succeeded. And, boy, did he ever. His story immediately struck a chord and the effects rippled out so strongly that it led to renewed energy on Capitol Hill to pass presumption legislation for those who served near burn pits.

We were extremely lucky to have Wes on our Veterans Day podcast, and we were heartbroken to learn that he died several days after we recorded the interview. He spoke at length about his love for his wife, Laura, and their son, Ronan, who told us they feel a tremendous loss. You can read his full obituary here.

We'll leave you with something Wes said when Jon asked what he’d want to say to the politicians in Washington:

"I hope that we can always strive to be better. If we genuinely push ourselves to be better, we can always be better. And I want politicians to know that they have the opportunity right now to be better. Push yourselves to support those who willingly, willingly went and defended this country. Do not forget their sacrifices."

Take action

Now that the PACT Act has been passed, it's all about making sure it is implemented in a way that ensures veterans can access their care and benefits in a simple and timely manner.

1) Help eligible veterans

The process for getting veterans who served near burn pits their benefits is now a lot more streamlined. However, it still involves navigating some government bureaucracy. So if there's anyone in your life who is eligible for benefits under the PACT Act, tell them what you've learned and offer to help them get the process going.

Burn Pits 360 and other Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) will also be closely watching how the VA implements these reforms and making sure they're giving veterans what they've been promised. So keep your eyes on their calls to action and reach out to your representatives when you're needed.

2) Other issues facing vets

Burn pit exposure is far from the only issue our vets are confronting. They struggle with unemployment and homelessness. They're also at higher risk for substance abuse, mental health conditions, and suicide. (If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.)

There are many organizations out there helping veterans navigate their lives and health after service. Many of them have volunteer opportunities, if you have time you can donate — that might mean making phone calls or helping vets to fill out paperwork, but every organization has different needs. So if you’ve got special skills (anything from house painting to fundraising), offer them up. You can find local groups by searching in your area or connect with a VSO that's helping vets on a national level:

The American Legion

Veterans of Foreign Wars

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America