Michael McAuliff, New York Daily News
WASHINGTON — Jon Stewart and fellow advocates who cajoled Congress into passing legislation to help veterans sickened by massive burn pits overseas deserve the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said in a letter to President Joe Biden on Thursday.
For years, Congress had failed to address the impacts of burn pits — the massive, open-air trash fires that the military used to incinerate everything from medical waste to plastic and ammunition during the global war on terror.
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Some of the pits were the size of football fields, and federal officials believe at least 3.5 million members of the service were exposed to toxic fumes and dust similar to the noxious smoke from the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center that sparked those wars.
Gillibrand says the talk show host and comedian deserves the honor, along with retired Army Capt. Le Roy Torres, his wife Rosie Torres and 9/11 advocate John Feal for their work pushing Congress to act.
“Rosie, Le Roy, John and Jon worked with me on this legislation from the very beginning, when the possibilities seemed dim,” Gillibrand said in her letter. “However, they continued to do the hard work, knowing that doing the right thing on behalf of our service members was worth it.”
Gillibrand wrote a key part of the law, which guarantees that veterans who get sick with any of more than two dozen conditions linked to toxic smoke and dust will be able to get care through the Veterans Administration without having to jump through hoops that barred more than three-quarters of them from getting care before.
The bill nearly failed when retiring Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey mounted a last-second challenge to the bill. But the Torreses, Stewart and other advocates spent the six days camped outside the Capitol in protest, and forced the Senate to reconsider. In the end, just 11 Republicans voted against the bill.
Rosie Torres had launched the fight for burn pit victims after her husband returned from Iraq, developed lung problems, was forced from his job as a police officer, and couldn’t get help from the VA. It took 13 years.