Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty
Comedian Jon Stewart, who has been advocating for passage of legislation to help war veterans exposed to toxins from burn pits, was in the crowd Wednesday when President Joe Biden signed the long-awaited PACT Act into law.
Stewart, former host of The Daily Show, has been working alongside veterans service organizations to move the bill forward. He pointed out that some advocates have been pushing for the federal government to expand these health benefits for war veterans for 15 years.
On Aug. 2, the bill finally passed in the Senate and made its way to the president’s desk for Wednesday’s ceremony.
“It’s a great relief. You know, immediately I think all the veteran service organizations, and everybody else kind of shifts to implementation. These guys are relentless, and they are dedicated,” Stewart told PEOPLE moments after the legislation was signed. “They’ll grab a moment’s, kind of, pleasure but it’s also, you have to understand, we’ve lost a lot of friends along the way so it’s not — it’s relief without celebration to a certain extent.”
RELATED: Jon Stewart Emotionally Advocates for Veterans Exposed to Toxic Fumes: ‘An IED That Goes Off in Your Body’
Lawmakers, government officials, veterans and their family members gathered together for the formal bill signing at the White House. The ceremony brought tears to the eyes of some attendees, including Stewart.
“I’m a man so I don’t cry,” he quipped after the signing. “I was a mess. I’ve been a mess the whole time.”
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty President Biden at the PACT Act signing
During the signing ceremony, Biden mentioned Stewart by name, earning him a standing ovation from the audience.
“What you’ve done, Jon, matters. And you know it does. You should know. It really, really matters,” Biden said. “You refuse to let anybody forget. You refuse to let them forget. And we owe you big, man. We owe you big.”
RELATED: Senate Passes Long-Sought PACT Act to Help Veterans Affected by Burn Pits
In addition to the burn pits bill, Stewart’s activism was a driving force behind past legislation to provide health care for Sept. 11, 2001, first responders.
Asked if he’d ever run for public office, Stewart responded, “I would not, but thank you.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said passage of the bill would not have happened without Stewart and 9/11 first responder John Feal, who traveled frequently to Washington for meetings with lawmakers about the burn pits bill.
“Everybody loves the backup quarterback,” Stewart said.
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty
Stewart stressed that veterans advocates are now looking toward the implementation of the legislation and ensuring that it goes smoothly and effectively.
“[Veterans Affairs Sec. Richard] McDonough has implemented sort of a paperless process that they’re just now going through. So hopefully that will bear some fruit,” he said.
McDonough told reporters that the Department of Veterans Affairs has hired thousands of claims processors over the last 8-10 months in anticipation of the legislation passing. The department is currently in the process of training them.
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In the process of lobbying for veterans’ health, Stewart has come to understand a couple things about the legislative process.
“The positive is this place is held together by hundreds and hundreds of legislative aides who know their stuff backwards and forwards, who are really dedicated, who are here at 7 o’clock in the morning and don’t leave until 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock at night,” he said. “They’re not ideological, necessarily. They’re focused on doing the right thing and fixing real problems.”
“On the negative side, there’s a disconnect between the people who sit in the beautiful Capitol, and the people who are affected by their policies. And until you can bridge that gap, I think you’re going to find this sort of, this kind of lag time between need and between solutions,” he added.
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