Comedian Jon Stewart and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks Discuss the Impacts of Military Service at Inaugural War Horse Symposium

Stewart, a longtime advocate for veterans, pressed Hicks on several controversies surrounding the Department of Defense, particularly the department’s perceived lack of transparency and support for returning service members.


Anu Vashist

Comedian Jon Stewart speaks with Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks.

By Justin Walgren

The Harris School of Public Policy and The War Horse News hosted a conversation between comedian Jon Stewart and Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks on the relations between civilians and the military and between veterans and the Department of Defense (DOD). The event was hosted at the David and Reva Logan Center for the Arts on April 6.

The conversation was the closing event of the inaugural War Horse Symposium, a collaborative project by the Harris School and The War Horse News dedicated to exploring the human impact of military service through a series of panels and public conversations. The War Horse News is a nonprofit media outlet that covers veterans’ affairs and military issues.

Stewart is best known for hosting The Daily Show, a comedy show satirizing national news, between 1999 and 2015. He garnered an enduring reputation for his social criticism and political commentary, and he strongly advocates for improving the lives of veterans through an increase in healthcare benefits and social assistance programs.

Hicks currently serves as the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense and previously served two terms as an undersecretary in the DOD under the Obama administration.

After an introduction by Thomas Brennan, the executive director of The War Horse News, Stewart began the conversation by asking Hicks a series of questions about the relationship between the DOD and the press.

Hicks denied the assertion that the DOD has a strained relationship with the press. Stewart disagreed. He suggested that despite claiming to welcome good journalism, the DOD’s conduct says otherwise.

As an example, he cited the scandal surrounding the U.S. military’s use of burn pits to dispose of chemical waste in combat zones, which exposed many U.S. soldiers to toxic substances and resulted in Congress passing the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 to ensure veterans exposed to these substances receive necessary healthcare. The military resisted media efforts to report on the issue, Stewart argued.

Hicks plainly responded, “I don’t accept the premise.” She conceded that the DOD’s extensive bureaucracy can sometimes complicate efforts to retrieve information about military operations but said, “Taking care of people, specifically the PACT Act issues, is front and center for the Secretary of Defense, front and center for me.”

Stewart asked Hicks what issues the DOD would like to see covered by journalists, and she responded, “I think the personal stories and personal experiences are really important.” She added that coverage of these stories could help repair a “disconnectedness” between the military and civilians, referring to the military’s falling recruitment numbers in recent years.

Stewart’s next set of questions focused on the DOD’s recruitment issues. Both Stewart and Hicks agreed that military service has lost value to many Americans, but they disagreed on the cause of this lost value. Stewart pointed to the perceived lack of support for veterans by the DOD, citing the lack of a common electronic recordkeeping system between the DOD and the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) as an example.

“I was in Afghanistan, sitting in a tent, watching eyes in the sky, with drones that looked over a three-mile period that could pick a guy off of a motorcycle without knocking over a street sign next to him. And so, the idea that we have enough money to make those toys but not enough money to make veterans coming back from American wars, who are suffering toxic exposures, have an IT system that works—somebody is responsible for that,” Stewart said.

Hicks countered that the DOD is actively working with VA to merge electronic healthcare records. “The care of veterans is vital to our ability to have a social compact with anyone who serves. Absolutely uncontested, absolutely true.”

The topic of DOD recordkeeping also led to questions about the department’s financial transparency. Stewart mentioned that the budget for the VA has increased in recent years and that this increase has drawn scrutiny from many political commentators. In contrast, he claimed, the budget for the DOD has faced comparatively little scrutiny despite the fact that the department has never passed an audit. He asked Hicks why this was the case.

“DOD doesn’t have the kind of backbone business systems that collect data in a way that can allow you to pass an audit,” Hicks said. “That’s a high priority for me. We’ve been making sure we’re investing in those systems. It’s probably a 10-year process.”

“I understand, but you do realize to an audience of Americans, that’s crazy,” Stewart responded. He returned to the DOD’s relationship with the press, stating, “Don’t you think that that does speak to the larger point we’re trying to get at, which is [that] good journalism uncovers corruption?”

Hicks challenged Stewart on whether he understood the implications of an audit. “The fact that the DOD has not passed an audit is not suggestive of waste, fraud, and abuse,” she said. “It suggests that we don’t have an accurate inventory that we can pull up of what we have where.”

Stewart responded, “I think most people would consider that somewhere in the realm of waste, fraud, or abuse because they would wonder why that money isn’t well accounted for. I may not understand exactly the ins and outs, and the incredible magic of an audit, but I’m a human being who lives on the earth and can’t figure out how $850 billion to a department means that the rank-and-file still have to live on food stamps. To me, that’s fucking corruption.”

The conversation concluded with a note about current advancements and challenges to veterans’ benefits. Hicks addressed the food insecurity Stewart mentioned and named it as a priority issue for the DOD. She added that she would be happy to work with VA to add more benefits to the PACT Act.

After an audience Q&A, Stewart stressed the importance of spreading awareness about the challenges facing veterans.

He offered an anecdote about working with veteran service organizations (VSOs) to draft the PACT Act. Stewart proposed taxing defense contractors to create an additional fund for veterans’ healthcare, and all VSOs loved the proposal but ultimately could not implement it. “Why?” he asked. “Because guess who funds the VSOs? Defense contractors.”

“I think that speaks to the structural issues that we have in the country,” Stewart said. Later, he added, “If I’m addressing those who are gonna be a part of this system, it doesn’t have to be this way. This is what we made of it. But we fucked it up big. So, it would be nice if you could fix it for us, and I’ll talk to Tom Brokaw about calling you the next greatest generation.”