Loading...

From Defeat to a First-Ever Bill: How Veterans Are Fighting Back on Toxic Exposure

August 7, 2020by Tara Copp, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
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

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

In The News

Health

Voting

Veterans

March 17, 2022
by Alexa Hornbeck
VA Raises the Bar on Improving Veteran Health Services

WASHINGTON — The $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 15 includes funds... Read More

WASHINGTON — The $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 15 includes funds to modernize the VA infrastructure and allow registered nurses and physician assistants in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to receive a maximum salary to address... Read More

January 5, 2022
by Dan McCue
VA Seeking Comment on Waiving Copayments for Veterans at High Risk for Suicide

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veteran Affairs is seeking public comment on a proposal to waive copayments for medications and... Read More

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veteran Affairs is seeking public comment on a proposal to waive copayments for medications and health care services for veterans who have been identified as being at a high risk for suicide. According to a notice published in the Federal Register... Read More

January 3, 2022
by Dan McCue
Familiar Face Returns to Lead Global War on Terrorism Memorial Effort

WASHINGTON — Michael “Rod” Rodriguez, the former head of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation, is returning to the... Read More

WASHINGTON — Michael “Rod” Rodriguez, the former head of the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Foundation, is returning to the role of president and CEO as the effort to build the memorial picks up steam, the organization announced Monday. As reported by The Well News last... Read More

November 17, 2021
by Tom Ramstack
House Panel Seeks Better Interventions To Prevent Veteran Suicides

WASHINGTON — The heartrending subject of veteran suicide was again front and center on Capitol Hill Wednesday as a House... Read More

WASHINGTON — The heartrending subject of veteran suicide was again front and center on Capitol Hill Wednesday as a House panel heard one heartbreaking story after another about young people who placed themselves in harm’s way for their country only to return home and take their... Read More

November 10, 2021
by Tom Ramstack
Congress Seeks to Serve More Food to Veterans Who Served the US

WASHINGTON — Navy veteran Tim Keefe told a congressional panel Wednesday about how he was willing to give his life... Read More

WASHINGTON — Navy veteran Tim Keefe told a congressional panel Wednesday about how he was willing to give his life for his country when he enlisted in the military. After he left the Navy, he had trouble finding a sandwich to eat. He suffered a job... Read More

November 10, 2021
by Alexa Hornbeck
How the Mission Act is Negatively Impacting Veteran Access to Health Care

WASHINGTON — The Mission Act was launched in 2019 to protect veterans' access to health care, but now health policy... Read More

WASHINGTON — The Mission Act was launched in 2019 to protect veterans' access to health care, but now health policy experts are finding that the legislation may actually be preventing access. “Veterans who need to go to [into] the community are not getting care, or getting... Read More

News From The Well