After having ‘many doors shut in our faces’, the crusading couple celebrate

The war began for Le Roy Torres and his wife, Rosie, when the Army captain returned to Texas in 2008, already suffering from inhaling toxins from a 10-acre burn pit at Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq.

Along the way, Le Roy would lose his job of choice as a Texas state trooper and take his fight to victory in the Supreme Court. He would be rushed to the emergency room hundreds of times, denied health benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs for years, attempt suicide and seek experimental cures for his lung and brain damage.

Through it all, Le Roy and Rosie founded an organization to help others and push Congress to fix laws that allowed veterans to suffer, eventually enlisting people like comedian and activist Jon Stewart, who won their dramatic showdown. helped Senate last week.

Their struggle will never end. But the Torreses’ campaign to make sure no other veterans have to go through what they experienced ended Aug. 10, when they joined President Joe Biden as he signed a law to guarantee that 3.5 million American warriors face similar dangers. May take care of them.

“I mean, 13 years ago we were walking the halls [of Congress] – It’s really emotional,” Rosie said recently, pausing to collect herself and wipe away tears, “because I think of all the people who died along the way.”

The bill provides a new entitlement program for veterans who served in a combat zone in the past 32 years. If they are diagnosed with any of the 23 conditions identified in the law — from certain cancers to respiratory illnesses — they are automatically considered eligible for health coverage. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new facility will cost $280 billion over the next 10 years.

Most veterans — about 80% — who start experiencing symptoms after leaving the service are denied what’s known as service connection when they seek help from the VA. The system is designed to mistrust them, veterans complain. They must prove that their respiratory problems or cancer came from the toxic trash fumes they inhaled abroad, which is extremely difficult.

When Le Roy returned home from Balad Air Base — the second-largest U.S. post in Iraq and where the military burns tons of debris every day, including plastic, ammunition and medical waste — he was already sick. A few weeks later he was rushed to the hospital with a severe respiratory infection.

He had hoped to continue working as a state trooper, but by 2010 it was clear that he was unable to perform all duties due to his illness. When he asked for a different job with the Texas Department of Public Safety, he was turned down. He was told that he would have to resign if he wanted to apply for medical leave. The retirement application was then rejected. So he sued and eventually took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in June that states are not immune from such lawsuits by service members.

In those early years, military and VA doctors couldn’t tell what caused his shortness of breath and splitting headaches. As with other victims of toxic exposure, diagnosis has proven difficult. Some doctors suggested the problems weren’t real — a declaration often faced by other vets whose claims are denied.

Like many others, Rosie turned to the Internet for information from the VA, where she worked for 23 years. He discovered a Facebook group that he would use as the basis for a new advocacy group, Burn Pits 360.

A man wearing a suit and wearing a nasal cannula stands on the north side of the Capitol building.
In 2008, Le Roy Torres, pictured on Capitol Hill in June 2022, began developing breathing problems linked to a burn hole at an army base in Iraq. He and his wife, Rosie, founded the advocacy group Burn Pits 360 and fought for years for legislation that would have guaranteed veterans exposed to these toxic fumes that their illnesses would be covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Michael McAuliffe for KHN)

Le Roy eventually developed constrictive bronchiolitis, pulmonary fibrosis, and toxic encephalopathy. He finally received his benefits in early 2013. By then, the family was deep in debt.

For years he lived with the reality that the military he served in for 23 years refused to answer his needs, and the police force he loved didn’t seem to care.

“It’s something that we now learn is called moral injury and compounding damages,” Rosie said.

As a man, he began to wonder how he could provide for his family, if he was of any use, he added. “So that led to him trying to take his life.”

This led the couple and parents of three to plead with Congress to address the issue. They began walking the halls of the Capitol. Success there was not easy.

“We came to Capitol Hill and handed out the information we printed about the burn pit exposure,” Le Roy said on his last visit to the Hill in June, an oxygen tube under his nose.

“We had a lot of doors shut in our faces,” Rosie said.

While making little headway in Congress, they created Burn Pits 360, an advocacy group and clearinghouse to help other veterans similarly see a system failing them.

Progress began for Rosie when she watched Stewart and 9/11 survivor advocate John Fell win the same battle to get Congress to fully fund health and compensation programs for responders to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He recalled reading about toxins in the dust and smoke that rose from the collapsed Twin Towers and discovered that they were remarkably similar to toxins inhaled by soldiers near waste fires that were also burned with jet fuel.

He called Phil. Phil is called Stewart, and in February 2019 met with four of their lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.), one of the authors of the 9/11 Act.

The key, they decided at that first meeting, was to remove barriers for the most common ailments and remove the burden of proof on sick veterans. Gillibrand’s office authored the bill, along with Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), who championed it in the House.

Ultimately, that bill became the centerpiece of the measure that passed, known as the PACT Act and named for a soldier who died of a cancer linked to his service.

“Our bill was the first federal estimate for burn pit coverage. And it’s all because of Rosie and Le Roy,” Gillibrand said.

But as with the 9/11 Act, many in Congress weren’t keen on that.

“It’s about money, and nobody likes to spend money,” Gillibrand said. “Congress has never wanted to accept the fact that treating these veterans and taking care of their health is a cost of war.”

A few weeks ago, the bill was ready to move forward. It passed both the House and Senate but needed another vote to resolve a technical legislative issue. Then on July 27, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who opposed the measure, unexpectedly persuaded 25 of his Republican colleagues who supported the bill to vote against it, claiming that the bill mandated spending — not subject to the annual will of Congress. – Democrats will spend $400 billion elsewhere in the budget. Democrats countered that the money Toomey cited is already being spent and that regardless of how it’s classified, it’s still up to Congress to appropriate it.

Instead of Rosie and the veterans who came to the Capitol to celebrate that day having to dig in one more time, Stewart brought the high-wattage attention that led Republicans to reconsider. On August 2, most Republicans decided to agree with the Democrats and the bill passed 86 to 11.

A woman and a man embrace outside the Capitol building.
Comedian and activist Jon Stewart hugs Rosie Torres on Aug. 2, 2022, after the Senate passed the PACT Act. The Torreses campaigned for coverage for 13 years, but Rosie said the victory is bittersweet “because I think of all the people who died along the way.”(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Rosie said it would never have happened without Phil and Stuart. Stewart said it’s all about Rosie, bringing veterans together in a way that Congress can’t ignore.

“That’s why I’m doing this, her and Le Roy,” Stewart said, standing outside the Capitol with Rosie the day before the vote.

Stewart, Torreses and countless other veterans cautioned their joy that it will be a difficult journey to get the new program working with a VA that already has a huge backlog. The law provides for creating facilities and bringing in private doctors, but some vets remain skeptical.

Brian Alvarado, an Iraq war veteran of Long Beach, Calif., was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer in 2006 shortly after returning from Iraq. He was assigned to patrol one of the many burn pits. He eats and breathes through a tube and struggles to maintain weight. Radiation and a tracheostomy left her voice almost inaudible.

“You can pass legislation, but it all boils down to the VA. How are they going to implement change? Claims, compensation, treatment,” he asked in June. “And how long will it take?”

A gentleman with a tracheostomy leans against a support column in his house.
Brian Alvarado of Long Beach, Calif., pictured in 2021, is a Marine Corps veteran who blamed his neck and throat cancer on inhaling smoke from burn pits during the Iraq War. Alvarado worries that the Department of Veterans Affairs will be hard pressed to handle the influx of cases under the newly passed PACT Act. (Heidi DeMarco/KHN)

For now, though, Rosie said that more than going to the White House, she’s looking forward to getting back to Texas and her family.

“You know, I lost 13 years away from my children, with trips to the hospital, coming to D.C.,” he said. “That means I can go home.”

Le Roy and Rozzio can reflect that as painful as that path has been, 3.5 million veterans are guaranteed a backstop because of the law, and thousands of veterans and active-duty service members who work for state and local governments now have shelter if they Dismissed after being wounded in battle.

“It’s nice to know that so many people are going to be helped,” Le Roy said from his home in Robbtown, Texas. “It helps.”

KHN reporter Heidi De Marco contributed to this article.

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