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Crusaders celebrate passage of burn pit bill after 'a lot of doors closed in our faces'

The battle for Le Roy Torres and his wife Rosie was just beginning when the Army captain returned to Texas in 2008, and he had already begun to suffer from the poison he inhaled from the 10-acre burning pit in camp Iraq Ballard’s Anaconda.

In the process, Leroy will lose the job he loves as a Texas police officer and fight all the way to a Supreme Court victory. He was rushed to the emergency room hundreds of times, denied health benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs over the years, attempted suicide, and sought experimental treatment for damage to his lungs and brain.

Amid it all, Leroy and Rosie formed an organization to help others and push Congress to enact laws that would allow veterans to continue to suffer, and eventually recruit comedians and activists People like Jon Stewart who helped them win a dramatic showdown in the Senate last week.

Their struggle will never really end. But the Torres family’s campaign to ensure no other veterans go through what they must end on Aug. 10, when they join President Joe Biden in signing a law guaranteeing the 3.5 million American soldiers who face similar dangers able to be taken care of.

“I mean, think about how we walked down the halls of [Congress] 13 years ago — it was really emotional,” Rossi said recently, pausing to pack himself and wipe away tears , “Because I think about all the people who died along the way.”

The bill provides a new entitlement program for veterans who have served in war zones for the past 32 years. If they are diagnosed with any of the 23 diseases identified in the legislation – from certain cancers to respiratory diseases – they will be considered automatically eligible for health insurance. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the new benefits will cost $280 billion over the next 10 years.

Most veterans—nearly 80 percent—began to experience symptoms after leaving service, but were denied a so-called service contact when they approached the VA for help. Veterans complained that the system was designed not to believe them. They have to prove their breathing problem or cancer comes from the toxic waste fumes they breathe overseas, which is very difficult.

When Leroy returned from Ballard Air Force Base — America’s second-largest outpost in Iraq — troops burned tons of debris every day, including plastic, ammunition and medical waste — He is already sick. A few weeks later, he was rushed to hospital with a severe respiratory infection.

He had hoped to remain a state trooper, but by 2010 it was clear that he was unable to perform all his duties because of his illness. When he asked for a job change at the Texas Department of Public Safety, he was turned down. He was told he would have to resign if he wanted to apply for medical retirement. The retirement request was subsequently denied. So he sued and eventually took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in June that states could not be immune from such lawsuits by service members.

In those early years, the Army and VA doctors couldn’t help but say what caused his breathlessness and splitting headaches. As with other victims of toxic exposure, diagnosis proved difficult. Some doctors don’t think these problems are real — a claim other veterinarians encounter frequently, but their claims are rejected.

Like many others, Rosie turned to the internet for information she couldn’t get from the hospital. Virginia, where she worked for 23 years. She discovered a Facebook group that she will use as the basis for her new advocacy group, Burn Pits 360.

A man in a suit and wearing a nasal cannula stands on the north side of the Capitol building.
2008, Le Roy Torres on Capitol Hill, June 2022 Respiratory problems related to burn pits at Iraqi army bases began to appear. He and his wife, Rosie, founded the advocacy group Burn Pits 360 and have fought for years for legislation to ensure that illnesses for veterans exposed to these toxic fumes will be covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Michael McAuliffe of KHN)

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

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

“This is what we now know is called mental damage and compound loss,” Rossi said.

As a man, he started wondering how he could support his family and if he was of any use to anyone, she added. “So that led him to attempt suicide.”

It also led the couple and the parents of their three children to plead with Congress to fix the problem. They started walking up and down the halls of the Capitol. Success there is not easy.

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

“A lot of doors are closed in our faces,” Rossi said.

While making little progress in Congress, they set up to burn Pits 360 into an advocacy group and a clearinghouse to help other veterans who are also frustrated with a system that seems to be failing them soldier.

Rosie’s breakthrough began when she saw Stewart and 9/11 survivor advocate John Phil win a similar battle to get Congress to fight the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks of responders with adequate health and compensation plans. She recalled reading about the poisons in the dust and smoke spewing from the collapsed Twin Towers, finding that they were very similar to the poisons inhaled by troops near the spent fires, which were also ignited by jet fuel.

She called Phil. Feal’s name is Stewart, and by February 2019, the four of them were on Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (DN.Y.), one of the authors of the 9/11 legislation.

They decided at their first meeting that the key was to remove barriers to the most common illnesses and remove the burden of proof for soldiers before they became ill. Gillibrand’s office wrote the bill with Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), who supported it in the House.

Ultimately, the act became the centerpiece of a measure passed, known as the PACT Act and named after a soldier who died of cancer while serving.

“Our bill is the first ever federal presumption of burn pit coverage. It’s all because of Rossi and LeRoy,” Gillibrand said.

But like the 9/11 legislation, many in Congress weren’t that interested.

“It’s about money, and nobody likes spending money,” Gillibrand said. “Congress will never want to accept the fact that treating these veterans and addressing their health care problems is the price of war.”

A few weeks ago, the bill appeared ready to pass. It passed the House and Senate, but needs another vote to address technical legislation. Then on July 27, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who opposed the measure, surprisingly persuaded 25 of his Republican colleagues who supported the bill to vote against it, claiming that spending was mandatory because of the bill — Unconstrained According to Congress’ annual whimsy — Democrats will spend $400 billion elsewhere in the budget. Democrats countered that the money Toomey mentioned has run out, and no matter how it is classified, it still needs to be appropriated by Congress.

Rossi, who came to the Capitol to celebrate that day and veterans instead, had to dig again, and Stewart brought high attention, causing Republicans to reconsider. On Aug. 2, a majority of Republicans decided to agree with Democrats, and the bill passed by a vote of 86 to 11.

A woman and a man hug outside the Capitol building.
After Senate passes PACT bill, comedy Actor and activist Jon Stewart hugs Rosie Torres on August 2, 2022. Torreses campaigned for coverage for 13 years, but Rosie said the victory was bittersweet, “because I remember all the people who died along the way.” (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Rossi said it wouldn’t be without Fair and Stewart It will happen. Stewart said it’s all about Rossi, bringing veterans together in a way that Congress can’t ignore.

“She’s the reason I do it, she and Leroy,” Stewart said, standing outside the Capitol with Rosie the day before the vote.

Stewart, the Torres family and countless other veterans eased their already massive backlog by warning that getting the new program to work with the VA would be a difficult journey. Legislation provides for the establishment of facilities and the introduction of private doctors, but some veterinarians remain skeptical.

Iraq War veteran Brian Alvarado, Long Beach, California, was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer shortly after returning from the United States. Iraq, 2006. He was assigned to patrol one of the many burn pits. He eats and breathes through a tube, trying to maintain his weight. The radiation and tracheostomy made his voice barely audible.

“You can pass laws, but it all comes down to Virginia. How are they going to implement these changes? Claims, compensation, treatment,” he asked in June. “How long will that take?”

Brian Alvarado of Long Beach, Calif., in 2021, a Marine Corps veteran who blamed his neck and throat cancer on being in Iraq Smoke from burn pits was inhaled during the war. Alvarado worries that the Department of Veterans Affairs will struggle to handle the influx of cases under the newly passed PACT Act. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

For now, though, Rosie said she’s looking forward to returning to Texas and her family in addition to visiting the White House.

“You know, I left my kids for 13 years, traveled to the hospital, came to Washington,” she said. “It means I can go home.”

Le Roy and Rosie can also reflect that, despite the constant pain of the road, 3.5 million veterans are protected because of this law , thousands of active-duty military veterans who work for state and local governments now have recourse if they were fired after being wounded in the war.

“It’s great to know that so many people are going to be helped,” LeRoy said from his home in Robestown, Texas. “It does help.”

KHN reporter Heidi de Marco contributed to this article.



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