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Jon Stewart, vets groups to demand action on burn pits bill at Memorial Day weekend rally

American comedian, talk show host and veteran advocate Jon Stewart is partnering with a coalition of veteran organizations and demanding lawmakers pass legislation to provide healthcare for veterans and service members exposed to toxic burn pits.

Stewart and the veteran advocacy groups will hold a rally in support of the Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022 at RFK Stadium Fairgrounds in Washington D.C. on Saturday at 1 p.m. EST. The “Pass The PACT Act Rally DC” is being held in connection with the larger annual Rolling to Remember rally in Washington D.C., which is focused around honoring service members missing in action and raising awareness for other military and veterans issues, like veteran suicide.

The “Pass The PACT Act Rally DC” is being hosted with support from American Veterans (AMVETS), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), the Reserve Organization of America (ROA), Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the Wounded Warrior Project, the FealGood Foundation, and Burn Pits 360.

Up until around the mid-2010s, the U.S. military maintained open-air areas on military bases in combat zones around the world in which they used jet fuel to burn and dispose of accumulated waste. Some burn pits stretched for hundreds of acres and were used to burn large quantities of plastics and electronic waste, releasing toxic smoke that caused illness in many nearby service members on deployment for months on end. Veterans groups have been advocating for the U.S. military and the Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize and provide healthcare for those negatively impacted by exposure to burn pits and other toxic chemicals throughout their military service.

AMVETS National Executive Director Joe Chenelly, who has worked for years on the toxic exposure legislation, told American Military News that Stewart has been an integral part of moving the legislation forward and they’re honored to have his support for Saturday’s rally.

“He’s much more than just the famous guy we throw out in the front of the cameras,” Chenelly said of Stewart.

“[Stewart’s] been intricately involved in the strategy” of explaining the issue of burn pits and other toxic exposures in the military to both lawmakers and the general public, Chenelly added.

In March, Stewart gave an impassioned speech in support of the military toxic exposure legislation in front of Capitol Hill, as members of the Senate took up a version of the bill, which already passed in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Here’s the bottom line,” Stewart said in his March speech, “you cannot be American first when you put veterans last.”

Chenelly, who was one of the first U.S. Marines in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and who saw deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he “lived downwind” of a burn pit in Iraq “for a few months” and has personally suffered some respiratory issues following that exposure.

Chenelly served as a combat correspondent for the Marine Corps, and as a civilian, he worked as a journalist covering military affairs for Leatherneck magazine, the Military Times newspapers, USA TODAY and Gannet News. Chenelly said throughout his Marine Corps deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, he and other service members wondered about the potential hazards of these massive burning pits upwind, which produced an unforgettable smell and at times “sent people out of the tent at night gagging” for fresh air.

As a civilian journalist and then as an advocate for veterans’ issues, Chenelly came to better understand the toxic hazards he and other service members had lived next to for months on end during their military service.

Chenelly and other veteran advocates worked with lawmakers for years to address this issue, often facing setbacks as lawmakers they worked with either retired or lost reelections, forcing them to constantly bring build new coalitions and bring the issue to the attention of new lawmakers.

Stewart previously advocated for expanded healthcare support for 9/11 first responders, who inhaled toxic smoke and dust as they worked to rescue people trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center after the infamous terrorist attacks. Chenelly said Stewart’s prior experience working with Congress became a key asset for him and other veterans advocates working to address the healthcare concerns surrounding burn pits and other toxic environments in the military.

Chenelly explained that lawmakers have brought multiple competing bills to address the issue of military toxic exposures. He said the bill AMVETS supports, the Honoring Our PACT Act, is the most comprehensive in terms of types of military toxic exposures it addresses. The Honoring Our PACT Act, sponsored by Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), passed in the House of Representatives in March and is awaiting a vote in the U.S. Senate.

Last week, Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jon Tester (D-MT) and ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) announced a similar bill, known as the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022. The VFW has commended the Senate’s bipartisan effort to advance toxic exposure legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also commended the bipartisan effort from the Senate “to take up nearly identical legislation” as the bill passed in the House in March and said the House will quickly take up the Senate version once it passes in the Senate.

Chenelly told American Military News he hopes as many people as possible will turn out for the rally at RFK Stadium on Saturday so that lawmakers see how much support there is for helping veterans dealing with the health impacts of toxic exposures and take it into consideration when they vote on legislation.

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