Episode 1 The

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

Scroll down to explore why that’s happening and how we can change it.

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 that they believe were caused by exposure to burn pits. There is ample science that shows the chemicals released by burn pits are linked to these diseases, but the Department of Veterans Affairs claims there isn't yet enough science to prove the service connection. This allows the VA to deny benefit claims for these vets and to deprive them of the care they desperately need. To put it nicely, it’s a total fucking mess.

The burden of proof

As it stands, the burden of proof falls on veterans to show the VA that their condition is 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’s happening in practice. The VA has instead denied more than 70% of the claims related to toxic exposure.

When Jon asked Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough what would help, his answer was to “file your claims.” Okay ... but people have been filing burn pit claims for years now and the VA keeps denying them. So why do it?

Well, it’s still really important to make sure everyone who is suffering from burn pit exposure is counted. The more burn pit claims pile up, the harder it is for the VA to put off dealing with the proverbial giant stack on their desk.

The government is kinda, finally on it?

Congress goes big

Last spring Sen. Tester (D-MT) introduced The Cost of War Act of 2021, and a companion bill was introduced in the House, sponsored by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), called Honoring Our PACT Act of 2021. Jon has been a vocal advocate for passing this legislation because it would result in a system that takes the burden off the vets and establishes a path for handling any toxic exposures that occur in future wars.

The Honoring Our PACT Act finally passed in the House with bipartisan support on March 3, 2022. The sweeping legislation establishes presumption for 23 of the diseases that are linked to burn pit exposure, which is a huge victory for everyone who has been fighting so hard for so long to get burn pit victims the support they deserve. The bill is now with the Senate, and the best thing you can do right now is to start screaming (preferably not literally) at your senators to support these bills.

For Biden, it's personal

This fall, the Biden administration also announced plans to make certain processes easier for vets who have suffered from toxic exposure. It’s an issue that Biden has said is a priority for him, because he believes his son Beau’s brain cancer may have been caused by burn pit exposure during his service in Iraq. That 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.

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 this, 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

Leading the charge

Meet the founders of Burn Pits 360

Army Reserve Captain Le Roy Torres served in Balad, Iraq, where there was a 10-acre burn pit. After returning home in 2008, he was diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis and toxic brain injury, both of which have had a devastating impact and have changed his family’s life forever.

His wife Rosie spent 23 years working for the VA, so if anyone should have been able to navigate the system, it’d be her! But their experience seeking benefits was so long and hellish, and took such a financial toll, that she vowed to help other people in the same situation. In 2010, the couple formed Burn Pits 360, where Rosie serves as Executive Director. If you want to learn more about Burn Pits 360's advocacy, visit their website or follow them on Twitter.

The government doesn't give a damn about us once we're out. Once you're out, they do not care.

The burn pit victim who's running for Congress

Isiah James is a retired infantryman who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of his job was to work on the burn pits, stirring trash and human waste. When he returned home he faced serious health issues as a result of his service, and he learned just how ineffective the VA's system for caring for veterans was. He began to fight for better care for himself and his friends who served. Isiah is now running for Congress in New York's 9th District and now serves as a senior policy advisor for the Black Veterans Project.

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

You can keep tabs on the Honoring Our PACT Act here — you can even sign up for email alerts. Tell everyone you know about this issue, and please don't be shy about contacting your representatives. You can also sign the petition that Jon started to show your support for this issue.

Sign the petition

Helping veterans more directly:

1) Register eligible veterans

Getting veterans who served near burn pits signed up for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry is a great first step — even if they aren’t currently experiencing any health issues. This is separate from applying for VA benefits, and it allows the VA’s Burn Pits Center of Excellence to better track and understand the effects of toxic exposure.

Visit the registry

2) Donate your time

If you’ve ever tried to get a health insurance company to pay for something they don’t want to, you’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to file a VA claim. You can volunteer with groups that help people navigate this process. That might mean literally filling out paperwork with vets or making calls, but every organization has different needs. So if you’ve got special skills (anything from house painting to fundraising), offer them up. Find local groups by searching in your area or join a national grassroots organization like the Stronghold Freedom Foundation, which advocates for vets who were poisoned by chemical waste at the K2 base in Uzbekistan.

3) 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 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.) There are a number of VSOs (Veterans Service Organizations) that help vets navigate their lives and health after service. Here are a few to start with:

The American Legion

Veterans of Foreign Wars

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America