Entertainer Jon Stewart ripped military spending as out-of-control and unfocused during a wide-ranging interview with the Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks on Thursday, saying that more needs to be done to get money to troops and families instead of defense contractors.

“We got out of 20 years of war and the Pentagon got a raise,” Stewart said during remarks at the War Horse Symposium in Chicago on Thursday. “I can’t figure out how $850 billion to a department means that the rank and file still have to be on food stamps. To me, that’s fucking corruption.”

The interview with Hicks, the second-highest official at the department, was the capstone of a day-long discussion on military and veterans issues with activists and government officials.

Stewart has been active in a host of military advocacy projects in recent years, most notably the effort to pass new benefits for veterans suffering from military toxic exposure injuries. Thursday’s comments were among his most critical of the military, aimed at finding a better balance between federal spending on veterans and military family support and national defense.

Hicks responded by conceding past shortcomings in spending priorities but insisting that the current administration has focused more on correcting those issues.

“We definitely think we need to increase the spending that we are putting forward toward our service members and their families,” she said. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is in areas like child care … We do think we’re getting better on that.”

She noted that about one-fourth of all military spending goes directly to personnel support, all of which stands separate from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs budget.

But Stewart questioned whether any of those efforts to prioritize people are being institutionalized within the Defense Department or the current administration.

“Congress gave [the military] billions of dollars to go to war, every year, for a lot of years, and then the veterans have to fight for money on the back end,” he said.

Hicks said those kinds of funding issues are the responsibility of Congress, not the Pentagon. But she also acknowledged those issues play into recruiting and retention challenges for defense officials.

“Part of what we’re recruiting individuals into is a lifetime of a social contract, and VA is at the other end of that,” she said. “So we work really closely with them, and they they’re doing incredible work to advance … the quality of care for our veterans.”

The White House has requested $842 billion in military spending as part of its federal budget for fiscal 2024, and another $325 billion for Department of Veterans Affairs spending. Both are the largest totals in U.S. history.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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