From Defeat to a First-Ever Bill: How Veterans Are Fighting Back on Toxic Exposure
WASHINGTON — When Rosie Torres first knocked on Congress’ doors almost a decade ago, asking for help for her husband and other veterans who became sick following exposure to military burn pits, she gained little traction.
What she heard: More research was needed to determine if the military was to blame. A burn pit registry was set up, but government officials still did not acknowledge that her husband’s service overseas made him sick.
“We felt so defeated so many times,” Torres said.
That may soon change. Last week, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., introduced the first comprehensive bill to change the way veterans sickened from toxic exposure are treated.
Currently, the onus is on veterans to prove that toxic exposure made them sick. But Tillis’ bill, the “Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act of 2020,” would shift that weight to the Department of Veterans Affairs to prove that it didn’t.
Now, “the tie goes to the service member,” Tillis said in an exclusive interview with McClatchy. “Now we’re saying the evidence is compelling unless you provide overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
Retired Army Capt. Le Roy Torres had inhaled toxic trash smoke particles at Balad, Iraq, from 2007 to 2008. The lung disease that followed him home cost him his job as a Texas state trooper. The VA denied his claims. Rosie Torres sought help unsuccessfully on Capitol Hill as their Robstown, Texas, home neared foreclosure.
In 2016, Le Roy Torres put a shotgun to his mouth. His service dog Hope saved him, biting into Le Roy’s shorts and knocking him off balance long enough for Rosie to get the gun.
That brush with suicide spurred the Torres’ to change her tactics and seek partners.
“I thought, ‘This is not how this ends. We didn’t do all of this to be at this moment,’ ” Rosie Torres said in a phone interview with McClatchy.
The Torres’ began to look for new allies. Rosie Torres said she knew air samples from Balad had many of the same contaminants that sickened the 9/11 first responders, so she started to reach out to the groups assisting the police, firefighters, construction crews and medics who became ill or died as a result of the months they spent at the World Trade Center grounds.
She also began to open up to local reporters about their struggles, something she now presses other veterans to do.
“We tell them, ‘Your voice moves something, who is your local press?’ Let’s get them on,” Torres said. “Involve your mayor, involve your city council, involve your state representative. Don’t limit yourself to your member of Congress.”
It’s that wider effort that made last week’s bill possible, Tillis said.
“It’s just become a more broadly understood issue,” he said.
Last year, the Torres’ organization, Burn Pits 360, partnered with 30 similar veterans organizations seeking help with different forms of toxic exposure. The concerns range from radar radiation in aircraft cockpits that may be tied to rising numbers of cancers among military pilots, to Tillis’ original cause, working for families in his state sickened by contaminated water at the Camp Lejeune military base, to the continued needs of Vietnam veterans sickened by Agent Orange.
No matter what sort of toxin veterans were exposed to, they have one request: Covered care.
“The formation of the Toxic Exposures in the American Military Coalition last year — the largest in decades — has helped raise awareness of this issue and accelerate the introduction of this bill,” said Jose Ramos, vice president of government and community affairs for the Wounded Warrior Project, a member of the 30-organization group.
The coalition’s efforts got a high-profile bump from comedian Jon Stewart, who announced last summer he was adding service members affected by toxic exposure to his causes.
“If you are one of our vets who is suffering, then we need to get into the fight for you now,” Stewart said in a public service announcement.
During the first meeting on Capitol Hill with Stewart in attendance, Torres was still skeptical. No one had showed up before.
“The room was full,” she said. “It was just, seeing that response from veterans, from freshmen members, members of Congress who were there, it made me feel hopeful,” she said.
Stewart has become more than a proponent of the group. Torres was in a New York meeting with Stewart last summer when her husband had another bad night. Le Roy Torres said to Rosie over the phone he was feeling suicidal again.
“I was at a breaking point,” Le Roy Torres said in a phone interview. “It was a time in my life where I was just burned out from this long battle.”
The next morning, his phone rang.
“I thought it was my wife,” Le Roy Torres said. “It was Jon, FaceTiming me. He said, ‘We’re going to move forward, and we’re going to fight hard, me and my team.’ Jon has kept his word. It just made my day and gave me some more hope. Because I was beyond exhausted.”
The TEAM Act is one of many toxic exposure bills Congress is considering. There are House and Senate bills to address pilot cancers, and House and Senate bills to address veterans struck by cancer who were deployed to a toxic base in Uzbekistan, among others.
“The dramatically increased activity and communication, both through the media and on Capitol Hill, finally got the attention of key decision makers and there appears to be a genuine will to make substantive and significant steps toward getting help for veterans who are suffering,” said Tom Porter, vice president of government affairs at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one of the coalition groups.
Tillis and Rosie Torres said there are additional bills being developed to address presumptive conditions tied to toxic exposure, including discussions on paying for an expansion of those conditions and electronic systems that would better track exposures in the future.
“That’s a part of what we owe the service member,” Tillis said. “It’s the cost of war and the cost of national defense and the price we have to pay.”
©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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