Sep 15, 2020
Jon Stewart, Kirsten Gillibrand Press Conference Transcript: Burn Pit Relief for Veterans
Jon Stewart, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and others held a press conference on September 15 to discuss proposed legislation that will help veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits. Read the transcript of the briefing here.
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Jon Stewart: (00:00)
Welcome to another exciting episode of when is America going to start acting like the great country we keep telling ourselves we are? You remember, we were here a year ago after a 15 year battle to get Congress to recognize that the first responders on 9/11 were sick and dying and needed healthcare and disability. John Feal and the FealGood Foundation and all the first responders and survivors and victims came down to Washington over and over and over again, sick and dying, walking the halls of Congress, just to get them to recognize the basic humanity of what they were dealing with, that their selflessness and heroism had put them in harm’s way and they had been sick. When it was done, we thought it was done. But it turns out that the war fighters that were sent to prosecute the battle, based on the attack of 9/11, now suffer the same injuries and illnesses that the first responders suffered from and they’re getting the same cold shoulder from Congress that they received. The fight starts again. The only difference between the first responders at Ground Zero who were sick and dying from toxic exposure is that that was caused by a terrorist attack on our country. The veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering the same illnesses and the same toxic exposure because of the actions of our own government. We dug burn pits, some of them 10 acres. They burned 24/7. Everything, every hazardous waste was piled into them. What’s the common ingredient? Jet fuel. Jet fuel as the accelerant at Ground Zero, jet fuel as the accelerant in these burn pits. Our veterans lived 24 hours a day, seven days a week next to toxic smoke, dioxins, everything. Now they’re being told, “Hey, man, is that stuff bad for you?” I don’t know. We don’t have the science. It’s bulls**t. It’s bulls**t. It’s about money.
Jon Stewart: (02:40)
We’re here today to say we’re not going to let this happen in the dark. We’re going to make sure that every one of those people goes on record and is held accountable for the illnesses of our veterans, hundreds of thousands of them, and they come home and they’re left to advocate on their own. It’s unacceptable.
Jon Stewart: (03:07)
Today, we’re going to talk to some people who’ve been personally affected. But I beg of you, we need your help in this. You can amplify their voices, you can make sure, and we understand, listen, everybody’s got an awful lot on their plate right now, but their voices deserve to be heard, their stories deserve to be heard, and their illnesses deserve to be treated.
Jon Stewart: (03:35)
I’m going to introduce to you. We weren’t going to get involved. We met a woman named Rosie Torres who runs an organization named Burn Pit 360. She’s not a superhero, she’s just a woman whose husband, Le Roy Torres, is a captain in the United States Army, he’s a Texas state policeman. He suffered illnesses due to toxic burn pit exposure and his life’s been ruined because of it. He has no ability to get recompense because the government has decided that the contractors that dug the burn pits get sovereign immunity. Le Roy Torres was put on trial as a defendant for his own health and Kellogg Brown & Root that made $40 billion in the 10 years that they were running these burn pits gets off scott free. She’s really been the driving force behind this, she’s an incredible powerhouse, her and her husband are the best. I’m going to turn it over to her and you’ll hear some other stories as well. Rosie.
Rosie Torres: (04:39)
Thank you, Jon. Thank you. I just want to thank the members of Congress, Congressman [Reece 00:04:45], Senator Gillibrand, all of your staff, all of our volunteers, and all the veterans organizations that are here supporting. Jon said it best at a congressional testimony years ago that it took responders five seconds to respond. I feel like that’s the amount of time that Jon and John took to respond to our ask to give us some hope. They didn’t hesitate at all to say yes, and so we’re grateful for that.
Rosie Torres: (05:12)
We’re not here to reinvent the wheel. We’re here to take the blueprint that the 9/11 families created and apply it to our cause. It’s been over a decade that we’ve been walking the hills of Congress only to be told to go build systemic momentum. Well, here we are today, and this is our systemic momentum.
Rosie Torres: (05:32)
I also want to say that it’s been a decade of collecting names in our registry of those sick and dying. Many of those are not here anymore to see this day. My husband couldn’t travel to be here with me. He suffers from a brain injury, a lung disease. So I’m just going to read his statement for him.
Rosie Torres: (05:49)
“My name is retired Captain Le Roy Torres.” His photo is here. Do you want to bring it up here? Okay. “I served a dual role as a Texas state trooper for 14 years and a United States Army soldier for 23 years. I was deployed to Balad, Iraq from 2007 to 2008 where I was exposed to chemicals from one of the largest open air burn pits. As a man, a husband, and a father, I have felt stripped of my dignity, of my honor and my health. Imagine returning home from war only to face a system of delay and deny, an employer unwilling to accommodate a war injury resulting in the involuntary end of my police career, foreclosure letters, repossession notices, denial of compensation claims. As a combat veteran and first responder, my mission to serve is etched in my soul and my heart, and I will do so until that flag is draped over my coffin. Since returning from Iraq, I’ve had over 300 medical visits and was hospitalized immediately upon returning from Iraq. The lack of healthcare services from VA and DoD forced me to exhaust my life savings to access care.”
Rosie Torres: (07:01)
“I was diagnosed with war lung disease and a toxic brain injury. The mental and emotional trauma is from being shamed and treated like a defendant, having to prove that I should have the right to keep my job after being injured in war. My employer, the Department of Public Safety, came to my house and stripped me of my credentials and my patrol car in front of my family like a criminal. I was punished for serving my country.”
Rosie Torres: (07:27)
“I graduated with my master’s degree while on military leave and returned to war two weeks later. Why is this important? We go to war to serve our country knowing the uncertainty of death or injury. What we don’t plan on is returning home to fight a whole new war, of having to prove our illnesses and our injuries. None of us return from war with the hopes of losing our careers, our homes, our families. Our employers and our government continue to hide behind the curtain of sovereign immunity.”
Rosie Torres: (07:53)
“Decades of advocacy begins with the suffering, the wounded, and the dead whose families are now calling on Congress demanding justice. The 9/11 World Trade Center first responders were told by our government that the air was safe. They too are sick and dying. After a decade of building systemic momentum, we have joined efforts with the 9/11 first responders, the FealGood Foundation, and Jon Stewart to apply their blueprint of grassroots advocacy. It’s time to deliver hope to the service men and women that borne the burden of America’s defense. It’s time we recognize these injuries as an instrumentality of war.” I also want to thank Tim Jensen from Grunt Style for lending his platform to this cause. We don’t have the reach that these veteran public figures and veteran entrepreneurs, such as Tim over at Grunt Style, have, and so just the fact that he is loaning his resources, his staff, and his voice to get it done. That’s what we should be doing as America, is getting it done.
Jon Stewart: (09:00)
Let me just check something real quick. Can you guys hear this now with this?
Speaker 1: (09:05)
It sounds fine.
Jon Stewart: (09:06)
It sounds fine.
Speaker 1: (09:07)
[inaudible 00:09:07] sounds fine.
Jon Stewart: (09:08)
All right, good. Because this is, boy, what a metaphor.
Speaker 2: (09:12)
Hey, Feal’s over there.
Jon Stewart: (09:15)
For them drowning out the voices of veterans who are trying to get healthcare with some circle jerk that who knows what they’re doing over there. Just to let you know, that’s what these guys are up against, Kabuki Theater versus the real stories and the real struggle that these guys are going through. But they’re not going to be able to drown it out because we’re not going to let it. I’m glad that you guys can hear it. Tell your story.
Daniel Robinson: (09:46)
Hi, I’m Danielle Robinson, and I am now a 35 year old widow thanks to our top military officials deciding not to properly dispose of trash in Iraq due to inconvenience and expense. The late Sergeant First Class, Heath Robinson, an army medic who enlisted because of 9/11 was exposed to toxic burn pits during guard duty he did while serving as a medic in the Ohio National Guard and had to stand 15 yards from a burn pit daily for about three months of his deployment at the Camp Liberty, Camp Victory complex.
Daniel Robinson: (10:17)
After returning home, the battle for his life began 10 years later. The oncologists we saw was astonished and said, “What the hell have you been exposed to? This rare form of lung cancer and rare mucous membrane pemphigoid disease is only due to toxic exposure.” He passed this year, May of 2020. His lung autopsy results showed he also had severe fibrosis inflammatory lung disease. We are still waiting for the microscopic report from his long autopsy at this point in time.
Daniel Robinson: (10:46)
My husband was not handed a bad genetic can and developed cancer. This was done to him. My husband is dead because America knowingly poisoned its soldiers. My daughter’s daddy is dead because America poisoned its soldiers. He fought aggressively to live for three years, which was traumatic for my daughter and I. Countless hours and days were spent in the ERs, doctor’s visits, hospitals, labs, radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy treatments. He also had multiple surgeries and biopsies.
Daniel Robinson: (11:17)
Now, paint this picture in your head. A little girl walking into the bathroom on multiple occasions finding her daddy bent over gasping for breath and blood is everywhere on the floor and in the toilet because he can’t stop his nosebleeds. Her running to get her mommy and asking, “Why is this happening? I don’t understand why this is happening to Daddy.”
Daniel Robinson: (11:36)
Also picture a loved one throwing up in a bowl, trying to gasp for breaths, and you are trying to talk him through breathing all while holding towels up to his nose to catch a gushing stream of blood. Can you imagine trying to breathe, throw up, and have a gushing nosebleed all at the same time? You’re panicking and neither of you truly knows what to do in that moment. My daughter, at the ages of four through seven, had to grow up too soon. She had to see things I wish I could make her unsee. When asking the reasons why Daddy is gone, I have to be honest and I have to tell her the truth. Daddy died because he was exposed to things no one should have to be exposed to while fighting for our country and our freedoms.
Daniel Robinson: (12:19)
Heath was active duty at the time of his diagnosis. He went through the medical separation process while active duty Tricare did cover his medical expenses. However, once medically separated, the VA began denying certain medications that was prescribed by his oncologist. We also applied for VA caregiver benefits because I had to take leave from my physical therapy job to handle his around the clock care. We were denied.
Daniel Robinson: (12:45)
This was also during a time when I had to place a chair every 10 feet from the path of our family room to the bathroom upstairs in order to get him to bathe. I would have to help him crawl up the stairs, and we would have a chair on the landing as well. Each chair he had to spend about three to five minutes in order to catch his breath just to move another 10 feet. Again, my daughter had to see this and witness this.
Daniel Robinson: (13:07)
We advocates are so appreciative to have Jon Stewart and John Feal join our cause. But at the same time, it’s a national disgrace that our war heroes, our veterans who willingly signed up to fight for our country, need celebrities to speak out on their behalf. Veterans’ voices don’t seem to matter to the very same people who voted to send them off to war in the first place. We are tired of being ignored by Congress, except for a handful of members. I would like to also thank Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Congressman Brian Mast, Senator Sharon Brown, and Senator Rob Portman, who also introduced the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Burn Pits Transparency Act in my husband’s honor this May.
Daniel Robinson: (13:48)
One desire Heath had before he died was to testify before Congress and hopes his story would help other veterans who are suffering and being ignored. He felt Congress needs to know the full consequences of their votes, which hasn’t happened so far, because every congressional Burn Pits hearing that’s been held has been denied the veteran speaking.
Daniel Robinson: (14:08)
Heath was a soldier who was injured on the battlefield while deployed to a combat zone, but his toxic injuries didn’t qualify him for a Purple Heart. His death is not counted as a casualty of the Iraq War, even though it was. His voice is now my voice. The voice is just one of many representing sick and dying veterans. This is the war that followed our soldiers home, now I’m asking Congress to start doing their job. You sent them to Iraq and Afghanistan, now take care of them when they come home. Thank you.
Speaker 3: (14:40)
Angela Uyoha: (14:52)
I am Angela [Uyoa 00:00:14:52]. I deployed to K2, it’s in Uzbekistan, in January of 2005. Soldiers of K2 had an incredibly dark sense of humor as signs of radiation and chemical hazards were all around us. My husband was there with me, and he had the similar experiences that I did. We heard something was wrong with the soil. No one was supposed to dig there. There were also weird ponds of bright green liquid that changed color. They would change color to this burnt orange and this black. We were told that uranium was in the water.
Angela Uyoha: (15:33)
They crammed us into a building while they waited for shipping containers to be installed that would be our sleeping quarters. They did not want us living in the tents, but we didn’t know why. We’re soldiers, we’re used to sleeping in tents. Every day I felt more and more drained. My knees and hips started to ache. But I thought it was the price of war. By the time I headed home from K2, I was struggling to carry my personal gear. My chain of command knew how driven, motivated, and successful I had always been.
Angela Uyoha: (16:03)
My chain of command knew how driven, motivated and successful I had always been. They never yelled at me. They just wanted to know if I was okay. After returning home, everything changed. Food, skin care, hair care to name a few. Everything seemed to react with my skin and heartbeat didn’t quite feel right. I had my first dizzy spell when I was in college. I called my husband to tell him that I loved him and what he meant to me. I was scared I was dying alone. Would they be left with unanswered questions about what happened to me? I told them where I was and he talked to me and he comforted me on the phone until it passed.
Angela Uyoha: (16:43)
One day I had to kneel at my desk to work. My feet hurt too much to stand and my legs hurt too much to sit. That day finally broke me. Many K2 veterans have been told that it’s all in our head. These are warriors, good, hardworking soldiers of all ranks from every background. This summer, Congress was forced to declassify military documents, with many environmental surveys over the last four years finding hundreds of known, tested and documented toxic chemicals, heavy metals and radioactive material. We finally had proof, almost 20 years after the first boots hit ground. I am the lucky one. I am alive. I have a beautiful family. I am thankful for the company that I work for because they advocate for veterans. They help me every way they can but I still feel the clock ticking on my quality of life. My heart hurts for those who have already lost their lives and can no longer work. My great uncle was exposed to Agent Orange. He became a doctor to help himself when there was no help for him. I called him for help because he’d always been there for me. Before he died, he gave me a lot of advice. As we repeat the same cycle, we must ask when will the government do the right thing and care for veterans with health problems from things they were exposed to on the battlefield.
Speaker 4: (18:29)
Good morning everybody. When you repeat mistakes, you tend to repeat history and that’s exactly the situation that we find ourselves in today. When we send our young men and women off into conflict, you have to be prepared to take care of them when they come back and it’s not always predictable what situation you’re going to find yourselves in when you go into conflict but what is predictable is is that you’re going to find yourself in situations where our military are exposed to hazards and exposed to toxic situations. When I was secretary, I was dealing with World War II veterans who had volunteered for our government to be exposed to mustard gas to see what that situation was going to be like, but since that was a classified situation, they had no documentation, and for decades, they had tried to get the help that they needed. Thankfully working with Congress, we were able to get those World War II veterans the benefits they deserved.
Speaker 4: (19:38)
Then we were dealing with the Vietnam veterans with Agent Orange and they too found themselves in situations where they didn’t have the ability to prove the association between Agent Orange and their health issues, and again working with Congress, we’ve been able to get them and moving towards getting them the resolution that they so much deserve. Now of course we’re dealing with our Gulf War, OEF and IEF veterans and this is the situation that we find ourselves in. Last Friday, September 11 of all days, the National Academy of Sciences came out with a report that had some very useful recommendations about how we have to think differently about collecting data, but some have misinterpreted that report to suggest that it shows no adverse health consequences for our Gulf War, OEF, IEF veterans with burn pits. That’s just simply wrong. That’s not the correct interpretation. What the National Academy of Sciences said last Friday is there is no data, there is no ability to prove one way or another about that association.
Speaker 4: (20:50)
So what do you do when you have veterans who are suffering like we’ve heard this morning, these amazing stories, these heartbreaking stories, what do you do when you don’t have any data? Well what we’re doing right now is making our veterans wait without getting help. That’s simply wrong. It’s showing we have a backwards system, a system that doesn’t work, that doesn’t honor our commitment that we made to these men and women when we sent them into conflict. So we have to change the system. We have to get it right. When there is no data available but there is a plausible explanation and veterans are suffering, we have to give veterans the doubt. We have to give them the benefit of doubt, and that means we have to change our system to honor that commitment we gave to them, and that’s why we need to work with Congress to be able to have them use their oversight abilities to get this situation fixed for our veterans. Thank you.
John Fields: (21:51)
About 20 minutes ago, I was talking to the group, I said, “Calm down.” This is a marathon. We’re all in this together. Then I heard that crap behind me and man my blood pressure’s right here, right here, and I listen and they said, “America’s worth fighting for.” Then they clap, but not one person on those steps stopped to talk to any of these heroes behind me. Not one person stopped and said, “Thank you for your service, are you okay? How can I help?” You just said America’s worth fighting for, what the … Are you kidding me? This is embarrassing.
John Fields: (22:51)
So we come here today. For 15 years, this man took an issue that was in the shadows and put sunlight on it. Now we’re asking him again to take an issue that’s been in the shadows and put sunlight on it. To let the American people know that good, ordinary people who do extraordinary things to keep us safe 24/7 are sick and dying. What have we become when we stop a legislative process and we tweet all day? When nothing gets done anymore? This is embarrassing. “Oh we’re the greatest country in the world.” I’m shocked, I’m appalled, and I’m repulsed by what I’m listening to right now behind me. These men and women deserve better. The 9/11 community deserves better. The American people, I get it, we’re all going through a lot right now, pandemic, social uprising, election. But when do we stop caring about life, about human beings? If you’re all right with that, then we’re not friends. Thank you.
Jon Stewart: (24:14)
So before … We’re hearing the stories now and it’s heartbreaking and we haven’t had any change. I want to make one thing clear, let’s be honest about what’s going to happen now. So we’re going to go to Congress and we’re going to try and put every congressperson, senator and representative on record if they’re okay with this and they’re all going to say the same thing, “We don’t have the science.” So I would challenge each one of these congresspeople to go back to their district and say, “We’re going to dig a 10 acre pit and we’re going to take all the garbage, hazardous materials and everything else from this town and we’re going to pour jet fuel on it and we’re going to light it in the center of the town,” and when your constituents come to you and say, “What’s with this thick black acrid smoke?” Just say, “I think it’s fine. We don’t have the science particularly.” They’re holding these veterans to a bar that nobody can meet. We know smoking causes lung cancer, but if you have lung cancer, you can’t actually prove that it was the smoke, and that’s the bar that they’re holding these veterans to and it’s unacceptable and the truth is it’s not about science, it’s about money.
Jon Stewart: (25:42)
They don’t want to do this for these veterans because they think it’s too expensive. We always have money for war, we never have money for the war fighter, and it’s unacceptable. We support the troops until the troops need support and then we bury it. So I’m going to tell you something that is the optimism in this, that’s the sunlight in this and that is this is an eminently fixable problem. It’s simple, and the money already exists in the system. It doesn’t involve a new funding initiative that taxpayers have to pay for. The money to help these veterans is in the system and I’ll give you off the top of my head four ways to do it. The Pentagon has an $800 billion budget along with an $80 billion OCO fund, Overseas Contingency Operations Fund that’s unaccountable. Take 5% of the OCO and we’ve got it. $400 billion of the Pentagon budget goes to defense contractors, people that profit off of sending our men and women to war, yet they have no accountability for the consequences of that. 2% tax on war profiteers and we have the money.
Jon Stewart: (27:14)
The F-35 is going to cost $1.4 trillion and nobody thinks it’s going to be anything. The [inaudible 00:27:22] already takes care of everything they could possibly take care of. The F-35 is going to be useless, they’re going to make 2,400 of them for $1.4 trillion. Just make 2,000 of them and we have the money. This is … It’s bulls**t, the money is already in the system. We’re just not allocating it to the right people. How is it that we have … The Pentagon wouldn’t even do an audit. 1990, they made it illegal to not audit every department, the Pentagon never complied until a couple of years ago. They failed their audit and the penalty for failure was an enormous increase in their budget.
Jon Stewart: (28:12)
Meanwhile each soldier that comes home is put on trial for their healthcare because if the VA and the Pentagon can make it so that their health condition is not a part of their service, they don’t have to pay any money. That’s what this is about. It’s easily fixable, it’s eminently solvable. The money is already in the system. Please, please talk to each one of these individuals and get their stories. Please do not allow congresspeople to duck this issue. We have the money, it’s there. So Senator Gillibrand, please.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (29:00)
Jon and Jon are exactly right. The money is there, they’re afraid of spending money, they refuse to spend money, they don’t want to spend money, they never have but because of this effort they will. I want to thank John Feal and Jon Stewart for dedicating themselves to these veterans in the same exact way you dedicated yourselves to the 9/11 first responders. Your service and your advocacy mean the world to these families and I just want to thank you for doing that. I want to thank Secretary Shulkin for being here to lend your voice to this issue. You’ve seen it, you’ve lived it, you know how vital it is that we fight for this money and this ability for families to get the healthcare they need and I want to thank Congressman Ruiz for working with me on this solution.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (29:45)
I also want to recognize the very brave families and the women that just spoke before us. Their stories are truly heartbreaking. As a mother I can’t imagine my daughter seeing what your daughters saw. I can’t imagine the spouses here that have lived it and those who have watched their husbands live it. It’s a crippling feeling to not be able to protect the ones you love. I’m especially grateful to all of our veterans and military families here who not only have served our country but who continue to serve their fellow men and women in uniform by fighting for them, fighting for the healthcare that they are owed and that they deserve. The stories that have been shared here today should be enough to move anyone to act, that more than three million service members could have stories like theirs from exposure to toxic fumes of burn pits is a moral outrage. It’s also a looming health crisis that must be addressed. Burn pits which are so dangerous that they are outlawed on American soil were used on bases around the world. Veterans lived and breathed in a toxic cocktail of dust, smoke and debris, now many are sick and dying from lung disease, cancers, and respiratory illnesses. And as we’ve heard, burn pits were not the only source of these exposures to dangerous toxins. Thousands of service members were stationed at K2 Airbase that once held Soviet chemical weapons. Many now suffer from rare cancers and other ailments. When these veterans go to the VA for care, the VA says they have to show medical evidence of a disease or disability, evidence of their physical presence near a specific exposure site, and evidence of the link between illness and exposure. Then once these veterans have jumped through all of those hoops, the VA has said as –
Kirsten Gillibrand: (32:03)
Jump through all of those hoops. The VA has said, as John said, “The science isn’t there.” That is a denial of their responsibility. The VA continues to claim there’s not enough evidence that these ailments are service connected, but we do have evidence. We know what was burned. We know what was in the soil. We know that the toxic fumes and environmental conditions were so hazardous that the DOD changed the rules for burning and switched to incinerators in many places. And we have seen the ailments of our 911 responders and Vietnam veterans who have developed exposures from some of the exact same toxins. These men and women, many of whom are fighting for their lives, should not have to fight the VA for the care that is linked to their service. For the VA to drag its feet-
Speaker 5: (32:59)
[inaudible 00:00:33:01]. We heard it. Why don’t you come over and fight with us?
Speaker 6: (33:05)
[inaudible 00:33:11], and the other gold star [inaudible 00:33:13].
Kirsten Gillibrand: (33:18)
It’s an outrage. Many of our veterans have no time to spare. This is the same battle Vietnam veterans had to bring to fight for coverage because of agent orange. Physically fit men and women who were exposed to toxic chemicals returned from war, came down with rare cancers and other ailments, and were told to wait, to wait for the science. Congress overrode the VA in 1991 and gave Vietnam veterans the presumptive coverage for all these ailments, we have to do the same for the veterans of the war on terror. Our bill would do exactly that. The Presumptive Benefits For War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act will remove the burden of proof. It will remove that burden from our veterans by establishing a presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins, and streamline the process so they can get the benefits that have already earned from the VA.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (34:23)
No more forcing veterans to beg the DOD for paperwork to prove their exposure, to spend late nights researching the links between lung cancer, lung scarring, and toxic smoke from these burn pits, or try to get notes from a private doctor, trying to convince the VA that this disease could only be caused by toxic environmental exposure. All that service members would have to submit to receive care is evidence of deployment to one of the 34 countries named in the bill, or receipt of a service of metal associated with the global war on terror and the Gulf War.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (35:01)
To put it simply, the bill says that if you were there, you are covered, plain and simple. This bill applies common sense and common decency to a very broken process, and I am fighting alongside these families, these service members, and these advocates. I hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have heard their voices. I hope they understand what is at stake here, and I hope that they will stand with every service member who put their lives on the line for this country. That’s the least they can do.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (35:37)
Jon Stewart: (35:44)
S**t. You can’t blame them for getting upset.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (35:47)
No. Not at all.
Jon Stewart: (35:49)
[inaudible 00:35:49] walking right past and they don’t care.
John Fields: (35:51)
Good morning. I’m Congressman Raul Ruiz and I represent California’s 36th congressional district. I’m also an emergency medicine physician, public health expert, and founder and co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan Burn Pits Caucus. First, I want to thank Danielle, Angela, and all the veterans and their families with us. Thank you for your service to our nation, and thank you for your strength in telling your stories. You are the reason why we’re here today. I’d also like to thank John Stewart and John Field for your advocacy and commitment to the cause. Rosie Torres for your incredible work, and whom I’ve had the honor to have in my district back in 2018, educating the veterans in my district about burn pits at my Veterans University. I’d like to thank Secretary Shulkin for your years of service and for joining us here today. And of course, Senator Gillibrand for your partnership in this fight.
John Fields: (36:54)
I stand before you today because of the bravery and sacrifice of Jennifer Kepner, a constituent of mine who was exposed to burn pits during her service at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq. Jennifer Kepner was 39 years old, the mother of two, who served our nation as an Air Force medic. She was one of the most inspiring and brave people I have ever met. When I met Jennifer, we sat at her kitchen table and let me tell you, it was one of the most impactful kitchen table conversation I’ve had in my life. She told me about her life, about her service, about her husband, Ben Kepner, and their two young children Adia and Wyatt, whom she loved dearly, and she told me about her military service in Balad, Iraq, where she was exposed to one of the largest burn pits, up to 10 acres, where they burned batteries, jet fuel, medical waste, and much, much more, releasing large plumes of black smoke and causing her and her fellow soldiers to inhale toxic chemicals, carcinogens and particular matter.
John Fields: (38:11)
When we spoke, Jennifer was battling pancreatic cancer. A diagnosis her doctor linked to her exposure to burn pits during her service overseas. By the time I met Jennifer, she had only months to live. And Jennifer spent her final days as a leading voice for her fellow veterans exposed to burn pits, even in the midst of her own unimaginable suffering. I was at her bedside with her family when she died on October 18th, 2017. And through it all, Jennifer had only two requests, only two dying requests, dying wishes, one, to make sure her family was taken care of. And two, to make sure that other veterans are protected, and their families, from the pain and suffering that she experienced, not only from burn pits, but also from her difficult experience navigating the VA after being denied. It is for Jennifer, it is for Leroy, Rosie’s husband, for Heath, Danielle’s husband, for Angela and her husband, and many others that we fight to fulfill Jennifer’s wishes.
John Fields: (39:32)
Fueled by stories like Jennifer and countless others, I’ve developed a comprehensive four pronged public health approach to address burn pits. By one, ending the use of burn pits once and for all. Two, educating doctors and veterans on the health effects of burn pit exposure to identify risks and early symptoms. Three, taking care of our veterans and their families with medical care and disability benefits. And four, continuing the needed research to fully understand the scope of danger associated with burn pit and other toxic exposures.
John Fields: (40:10)
Stories like Jennifer, Danielle’s, and countless other veterans have been my inspiration for legislation such as the Jennifer Kepner HOPE Act. And the other reason why I created the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Burn Pits Caucus in 2018. Service members are returning home from the battlefield only to become delayed casualties of war, dying years later from lung diseases, cancers, respiratory illnesses, auto immune diseases caused by their exposure to burn pits and other toxins, drawing parallels with agent orange and 911 exposures. In fact, Jennifer told me that this indeed, is the agent orange of our generation. The DOD and the VA must acknowledge the lethal dangers of this self-inflicted crisis and address the suffering of exposed veterans.
John Fields: (41:09)
Look, I’m an emergency medicine physician and public health expert, and in public health and in medicine, it is practice that if there is a high enough suspicion of a harm that causes a severe enough consequence, then we need to act on that suspicion. We have evidence that give us a high enough suspicion, carcinogens on the dust, metals in lung biopsies that have been proven. It is a severe enough consequence, men and women dying left and right in their young, healthy years, with no other risk factors, are dying from cancers, lung diseases, and other severe illnesses, so we need to remove the harm and treat the person. Our veterans cannot afford to wait decades for that perfect 20 year longitudinal double cohort study like they were forced to with agent orange. People are dying, and that’s why we’re here today, to ensure the VA and DOD cannot neglect this DOD self-inflicted wound any longer. This is about taking care of our heroes in uniform and saving veterans lives.
John Fields: (42:34)
The Presumptive Benefits For War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act of 2020 would do just that, by establishing the presumption of service connection necessary for veterans who develop respiratory diseases and cancers from toxic exposure. And the bill would direct the secretary of the VA to work with the national academies to study a link between toxic exposures and additional diseases. Today we’re closer than ever to realizing Jennifer’s vision of getting veterans the healthcare they’ve earned and deserve, closer than ever to seeing the fulfillment of Leroy and Rosie’s, and Heath and Danielle’s, and Angela’s dream of a just society that really respects those war fighters. As Jon Stewart says, “When they come home, we give them the respect that they’re due and the appreciation that they’re due by taking care of them when they get illness from burn pit and other toxic exposures. But better than that, let’s just end those exposures to begin with.”
Speaker 6: (43:48)
John Fields: (43:54)
I look forward to continuing our work, to get this bill signed into law, and taking care of our heroes. And once again, thank you, John Stewart, John Field, Rosie Torres, Secretary Shulkin, Senator Gillibrand, Danielle Angina, and all the veterans that are here today. I will now turn it back over to Jon Stewart for questions.
Speaker 6: (44:19)
Thank you, sir.
Jon Stewart: (44:19)
Thank you. And remember, this is just the beginning. None of us have any illusions that today changes anything, but today we plant a flag and we say, we’re coming back here and we’re going to exhibit the relentlessness that these war fighters… Man, Congress has no idea the resilience of these individuals and we’re going to come back here. I want to thank all the veterans organizations, all the way back to the Vietnam veterans on whose shoulders this project stands on, who’ve had to fight for theirs, and Vietnam veterans are still fighting for their benefits. Man, america is four Wars behind when it comes to caring for their veterans, and the delaying tactics, and just waiting for people to be sick and die is not a mantle worthy of a country like ours, and we can’t continue to do it.
Jon Stewart: (45:19)
We’re going to activate the American Legion, and we’re going to activate the IAVA, and we’re going to activate the Wounded Warrior Project, and we’re going to activate the Vietnam Veterans of America, and we’re going to fill this space with veterans, and victims, and advocates, until those congresspeople that you saw walk by here, with not a care in the world about what these families have gone through, until they’re forced to face it. We need your help. So, please I’m begging of you. Interview the individuals here, get their stories. Don’t let this die. And if there are any questions, everybody would be happy to answer them. Yes, ma’am.
Speaker 7: (46:04)
Joseph R. Biden Jr. lost his son, Beau Biden, also Joe Biden, to cancer, he was also an Iraq survivor. Do you think he would be on board with this cause? Have you talked to him about it? What would that support mean?
Jon Stewart: (46:19)
Look, I can’t imagine that anybody isn’t onboard with this cause, this is the lowest hanging legislative fruit you could possibly pick. You shouldn’t have to have a family member die of a toxic exposure to be able to understand the pain, and difficulty, and tenacity that these families have had to undergo on their own. We make them advocate on their own. They have to be their own lawyer, doctor, scientist, when they leave the Army, the Navy, whatever their service is, they become set a drift. And Senator, you had something else.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (47:06)
Yeah. I saw Vice President Biden at the 911 Memorial on, I guess that was Friday. I told him that we were working on this bill together with a bunch of service members and survivors, and he was really grateful. I don’t want to repeat his words, because they weren’t for publication, but I can tell you, he is very much moved by this effort, he is grateful for this effort, and when he is president, he will support this effort, I’m quite certain.
John Fields: (47:41)
Daniel Robinson: (47:41)
Can I say one thing real quick?
John Fields: (47:42)
Daniel Robinson: (47:44)
I did the research, and Joe Biden’s son, Beau, was actually deployed to the same bases as Heath about the same time. Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, they were both deployed about the same time and Camp Victory in Iraq.
Daniel Robinson: (48:01)
… Victory in Iraq.
Speaker 8: (48:05)
Yeah, I spoke to Vice President Joe Biden years ago about this issue when we formed the Burn Pits caucus. And he was keenly aware of the association of burn pits and the potential of it being the cause for Beau Biden’s brain cancer. In addition to those bases, he was also deployed in Balad where Jennifer Kepner was deployed. And so I believe that we will have a champion as well with Vice President Joe Biden and with a new administration, with somebody who was personally touched by the consequences of being exposed to burn pits.
John Fields: (48:49)
I think I speak for everybody when I say we don’t care who the president is. Previous administrations have failed us, whether you’re in the 9/11 community and the veteran community. John and I sat on Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot task force, but we’re here today trying to get a bill passed for veterans. So it doesn’t matter who’s president, it doesn’t matter who’s in control of the House or the Senate, whoever gets in our way and opposes us… You guys saw what we did to Congress for 15 years, we’re going to punch them in the mouth.
Jon Stewart: (49:27)
Any other questions? Yes. Ma’am.
Tara Copp: (49:30)
Hi Tara Copp with McClatchy. This question’s both for you, Jon, and for Senator Gillibrand. For years, the K2 veterans haven’t even been able to go to the Burn Pit Registry to get help. They’ve been invisible. They haven’t been able because of just the Burn Pit Registry only including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Jon Stewart: (49:48)
This changes that. And please understand, the Burn Pit Registry is a joke. That’s just a way for them to kick this thing down the road. Rosie has registered more people in the Burn Pit Registry for herself. As far as the VA is concerned, there’s only 10,000 veterans in the Burn Pit Registry that have made claims and 8,000 of those veterans were denied. This is a problem for hundreds of thousands of veterans. What they did with the registry is a joke. They tried to do the same thing with the 9/11 first responders. It’s a tactic. This is about money and not wanting to spend the money to care for veterans that our government poisoned. I can’t make it more stark than that. It’s nonsense.
Jon Stewart: (50:45)
Rosie Torres: (50:47)
So on that point of the K2 veterans, not only have the K2 veterans not had the opportunity to self register, but the VA has also declined to accept any of these fallen hero’s families to submit a death entry. So not only are they not allowing the K2, but they’re not tracking mortality. So what we’ve done through, with very minimal, selling t-shirts and whatever, we have a poster here of our registry of people in every congressional district, some of those people are these families standing here behind me. And so Jon’s right, it’ll change a lot of things for a lot of population affected.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (51:26)
So the purpose of this bill is to exactly answer that question. We have a whole host of countries that are covered. Any deployment for the War on Terror is covered. And we believe there’s probably 3.5 million veterans who were exposed. So it’s a huge number. Right now, in terms of airborne hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, that website has about 212,000 veterans already registered between 2014 and August 2020. So we have a long way to go and people need to know that they are covered and that these diseases will need to be treated.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (52:05)
We also want to create the ability to have expertise in these areas, because what we found in the 9/11 health bill is that a general practitioner doesn’t know what these diseases are related to, and then don’t know how to treat them properly. So what we need to do is develop an area of expertise for physicians to know, “This is what happens when you are exposed to a burn pit”, so they can get the best treatment and save their lives because a regular doctor won’t know. And that’s why the specialty has to be developed just as we did for the 9/11 survivors and the /11 individuals who were exposed and got diseased.
Jon Stewart: (52:41)
And I hope you’re all catching the Catch-22 here, which is that DOD and VA don’t collect the proper data and then they put out a study saying, “We can’t help you, we don’t have enough data. And you have to wait for us to get the data that we never collected.” Pretty convenient and a lot of nonsense. And I just remembered there was an internal Pentagon audit, $125 million of waste, fraud and abuse could be saved over five years. So guess what? Just from that, we have the money.
Jon Stewart: (53:11)
Speaker 9: (53:12)
During the VCF fight, the first responders and the survivor community, the Lila Nordstrom’s, the John Field’s, they were forced to make hundreds of trips to Capitol Hill over well more than a decade. I’m curious, from your perspective, what are your biggest learned lessons as an advocate to help prevent the same path forward for these families so that they’re not also here hundreds of times knocking on doors?
Jon Stewart: (53:33)
I just don’t know. John Field can speak to that more than I can. The only thing that I can say is injustice thrives in the dark. And so the strategy for them, whether it be from ignorance or malevolence or incompetence or laziness, is to keep this in the dark. And our job is to force this into the light and to make everybody face these brave individuals and explain to them why the most obvious fixes can’t be accomplished by a government that purports to support its troops over all else. It’s simple.
Jon Stewart: (54:19)
Speaker 10: (54:21)
On behalf of the veterans, I represented connectingvets.com and to the congressional officials, what’s something we can actually do? Everybody says, “Get the bill passed.” But for my fellow veterans, as you’ve mentioned, without a hundred trips to the Hill, do you guys hear our tweets? Because I tweeted a hell of a lot of congresspeople on the Veterans Affairs committee.
Jon Stewart: (54:45)
Speaker 10: (54:45)
What else should I do to get this heard?
Jon Stewart: (54:47)
So here’s what we’re doing.
Jon Stewart: (54:51)
It’s not that this issue hasn’t had attention or effort. But it’s got to be concerted and it has to have a central locus and it has to be done with a certain focus and intention. So what you can do is we’re going to create moments where we activate our entire population, because we have to create enough noise to get their attention because you see, they just walk by. That was 50 minutes of nonsense, of self-congratulatory nonsense, while real people facing real consequence stand here waiting for help. So in those moments, what I would say to you is, and anybody out there who’s connected to an organization that has stake in this, follow Rosie, follow Grunt Style, follow all these groups. We’re going to create a time where we can activate everyone in a concerted moment to get their attention. And in that moment, we’re going to need all of you.
John Fields: (56:19)
Let me take you guys down memory lane. In 2010, we were that little engine that could. We got lucky. We got a bill passed. 2015, we were that big engine that did, and we got a bill passed. Last year, you guys all know, we got a bill passed. So there’s 433 out of 435 congressional districts represented at ground zero during the 10 month cleanup. So while we had the voice of Jon Stewart and the media behind us, we also had the American people and we had 9/11 responders and volunteers in every state. And we had them do local interviews. Then we had them go to their congressional offices. So when we deploy everybody this time, we’re going to be that much bigger and that much stronger. And we’re going to go to congressional districts throughout the whole country. Not one will be left. Then we’re going to have all of these soldiers affected by the burn pits, their families, their widows. They’re going to do interviews on local TV stations, radio stations, print, and we are going to suffocate a body of work, a dysfunctional body of work.
John Fields: (57:31)
No offense to you two, to you guys.
John Fields: (57:34)
And we’re going to make their lives miserable. We’re going to put our foot on their neck and we’re not going to allow them to come up to breathe. If they get on board, we’re going to challenge them to get their colleagues on board. So today, like Jon said, we’re planting the flag. Now we’re here to let you know, we’re in the mood for a fight if it has to go that way. We come in peace, but we’re ready to fight. And we’re fighting for human life. We’re challenging the humanity of members of Congress, because before you are Republican or a Democrat, you’re supposed to be an American and before you’re an American, you’re supposed to be a human being. And if you don’t get that, then you don’t belong in office in the first place. So today starts what is going to be a marathon.
John Fields: (58:34)
Jon Stewart really has nothing to do. Last time I checked, he’s feeding goats and pigs on his farm.
Jon Stewart: (58:43)
I’m a very busy and popular man.
John Fields: (58:45)
But here’s the thing, Jon’s responsibility is 10 times larger now than it was to us in the 9/11 community. When we held our last press conference, after the bill got passed in the Senate, Jon said he would follow me anywhere. I held him to that now and now I will follow Jon anywhere. And while I’m never ever, ever married or loyal to an institution, I am now married and loyal to these people behind me and the thousands that can’t be here today. I will die for these people. I will give my last kidney for these people. And I will punch a member of Congress in the mouth for these people.
John Fields: (59:40)
Stop sugar coating and stop playing nice. For years, we played nice. For years, we played by their rules. And every time we played by their rules, they made up a new set of rules until we out worked them, until we out thought them, until we out hustled them, until we got legislation passed. Not once, not twice, not three times now, four times, but five times in DC. Five, five times. We are 13 for 13 now in getting legislation passed. And with Jon Stewart and these ass kicking warriors, I like our odds.
Tim Jensen: (01:00:17)
Hello everybody. My name is Tim Jensen, chief strategy officer at Grunt Style. Couldn’t be more proud to be part of this project and what we were trying to accomplish here. If you remember, seven years ago, during Sequestration 2013, they’d shut down all the national monuments here in Washington, DC. The power that the veteran community has is that we can activate as fast as possible because that’s what we do. We know this. We know this game. In 2013, we brought tens of thousands of veterans down here and we reopened every one of these monuments, carried those guard rails all the way down Pennsylvania Avenue and threw him into the White House lawn. We circled the White House and we let them know this was not acceptable for our community. These deaths that are happening in this community is unacceptable. We didn’t go to war to come home to die by something that our government did to us.
Tim Jensen: (01:01:09)
I lost my best friend, my CO, my XO, many of my friends and my family. I have cancer because of this. And they’re dying. I’m not going to stand for it any longer. I’m going to use this platform that Grunt Style has built over the years to connect with every veteran in this country. I’m going to create heat maps of every legislator, representative, and their constituents, and I’m going to activate them all. I’m going to get them to send every one of these legislators a letter saying, “We demand you to act now.” And for all those veterans that are up on the Hill that are doing nothing, that have passed nothing, I’m telling you, as John said, John Field, we’re coming and we’re going to fight. We know what fight looks like, and it’s not over. At the end of the day, it remains the same. We are in the fight for our lives, and I’m not going to die on my own soil because of what something the government did to me or any one of my brothers and sisters anymore.
Speaker 11: (01:02:08)
Tim Jensen: (01:02:10)
Speaker 11: (01:02:13)
You exchanged words with some of the representatives as they walked by. Could you tell us what was said or what the spirit of that conversation was?
Tim Jensen: (01:02:17)
Well they’re up on the steps of the Capitol here, talking whatever it is about, “America’s worth fighting for”, and you’re absolutely right. America is worth fighting for, but these are the men and women that are actually doing the fighting. At the end of the day when politics fail, what happens? It’s the United States military that has to go and clean up the work. And every time, it goes back decades, centuries, these veterans are left holding the bag. And every one of them you saw, they walked by, they looked at us and they kept walking and they shook their heads. Like we’re the scum. No, it’s over. Mark my words, guys. It’s over.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (01:03:02)
Thank you everybody for coming. Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I appreciate you so much.
Speaker 8: (01:03:03)
Thank you so much.
Kirsten Gillibrand: (01:03:05)
Bless you for your testimony, I’m sorry this happened to you, and I-