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How Veterans Are Fighting Back on Toxic Exposure

Monday, August 24, 2020

Almost a decade ago, Rosie Torres approached Congress for support, asking for help for her husband and other veterans affected by exposure to the burn pits. Unfortunately, she gained little traction. She was met with pushback from Congress who supported the notion that more research was needed to determine if the military should be held responsible. Though a burn pit registry was set up, which works to identify those exposed to the burn pits, government officials did not acknowledge that Torres’ husband was sick because of his service overseas. 

Torres’ husband, retired Army Captain Le Roy Torres had inhaled toxic trash smoke particles in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. His resulting lung disease cost him his job as a Texas state trooper. The VA denied his claims and any efforts on Capitol Hill were unsuccessful as his family’s home in Robstown, Texas, neared foreclosure. 

The battle has continued over the years for Torres and thousands of other veterans affected by toxic exposure. “We felt defeated so many times,” Torres said. 

After a close brush with suicide in 2016, Rosie Torres became determined to change her tactics and seek new partners to move forward in the fight. She started by reaching out to groups of police, firefighters, construction crews, and medics that became ill or died due to contaminants at the World Trade Center as air samples had proved that many of the same contaminants as the exposure her husband had in Iraq. 

Torres’ organization, Burn Pits 360, partnered with thirty similar veterans’ organizations last year, all seeking help with different forms of toxic exposure. No matter the type of toxic exposure the coalition has one request, covered care. 

This formation of the Toxic Exposures in the American Military Coalition has helped raise awareness and expedited the process of introducing a bill that enacts positive change for those affected. The coalition even got a high profile bump from comedian Jon Stewart. Torres admits a skepticism before their first Capitol Hill meeting as no one had ever shown up. 

“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.

Now, there is some semblance of optimism growing in the community of those affected as Sen. Thom Tillis has introduced a comprehensive bill to change the way affected veterans are treated. His bill, “Toxic Exposure in the American Military Art of 2020,” changes the course of the argument families like Torres’ have been trying to make for years. Instead of the veterans and their families having to prove that illnesses were caused by toxic exposure during their service, the Department of Veterans Affairs would have to prove that it didn’t. 

As Tillis put it in an interview, “the tie goes to the service member.” “Now we’re saying the evidence is compelling unless you provide overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” 

The Act is one of many toxic exposure bills to be considered by Congress. “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 in the works that will go further to address presumptive conditions tied to toxic exposure and better track exposure in the future electronically. “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.”

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