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 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