Fighting the Agent Orange Battle of the 9/11 Generation

After Rosie Torres' husband got sick from "burn pits" in Iraq, she became the face of a movement.

Source Photographs by Ryan Chipman for OZY

Why you should care

Because Rosie Torres' battle over toxic fumes isn't going away.

While Le Roy Torres was serving in Iraq, the fires raged. Using jet fuel as an accelerant, military contractor KBR indiscriminately incinerated discarded plastics, medical waste, spent munitions and biological remains. Joint Base Balad, where Torres served, had the largest burn pit operation in U.S.-occupied Iraq, but just one of many across Iraq and Afghanistan run by contractors DynCorp International, Fluor Intercontinental and KBR. Their toxic smoke and ash cloaked the bases and nearby population centers for days on end.

Since returning home in 2008, Torres, now 47, has been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, a chronic lung disease, and more recently a toxic brain injury. It’s cost him his job with the Texas Department of Public Safety. His wife, Rosie, left her position at the Department of Veterans Affairs — a job she held since high school — to stave off foreclosure by tapping into their federal thrift savings account, which remained off-limits while she was on the job, and secure a grant from Feherty’s Troops First Foundation. “By no means did I want to retire in my early 40s,” she says.

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Le Roy Torres has been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis, a chronic lung disease, as well as a toxic brain injury.

It’s not exactly retirement. Instead Rosie has become the most prominent advocate for the 185,000 veterans who have sought treatment for illnesses possibly tied to burn pits — a fraction of the 3.2 million service members Torres believes were exposed. As they now seek accountability in the justice system and health benefits from the VA that could add up to tens of billions of dollars, this is fast becoming the Agent Orange fight of the 9/11 generation.

We are equipping them with the tools to become self-advocates.

Rosie Torres

“If you look at the big picture, taxpayer dollars went to poison our troops. So we are trying to make sure justice is served,” says Torres, who grew up in a seminomadic military family before going to work as a cog in the vast VA bureaucracy.

Today, Torres, 45, is the executive director of Texas-based Burn Pits 360, the leading advocacy organization for U.S. veterans exposed to these emissions. Of more than 6,000 pit-exposed veterans tracked by Burn Pits 360’s private victims registry, nearly 150 have died. Still, the VA blames inconclusive research for its refusal to presume a service connection when veterans turn up with related symptoms, often denying pit-exposed veterans’ disability compensation claims and limiting access to specialized treatments. Torres, her direct speaking style honed over years of taking on powerful interests, waves away the VA’s excuses, arguing they’re no match for the lived experiences of families like hers.

Recently, Torres has gained some powerful allies in the fight. Impressed by comedian-turned-activist Jon Stewart’s efforts on behalf of 9/11 first responders, she reached out to the Stewart-aligned FealGood Foundation. Within weeks, the former Daily Show host cut a PSA for Burn Pits 360, bringing A-list star power to the cause.

Torres has also made inroads in Congress, though so far the only major action there has been to allocate $20 million to burn pit research and education. Rep. Raul Ruiz, a California Democrat and co-founder of the bipartisan Congressional Burn Pits Caucus, calls Torres and Burn Pits 360 “excellent and inspiring partners in the fight to help veterans exposed to burn pits in the military.”

Ruiz has introduced bills to mandate VA care for service members and veterans exposed to burn pits, and to establish a presumption of service connection for certain illnesses attributable to burn pit exposure, including constrictive bronchiolitis. But neither has made it even to a committee hearing.

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Le Roy and Rosie Torres during a Texas Senate hearing.

The Senate held a hearing in September on the issue, and Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, “has made it a priority to have this conversation on toxic exposure and burn pits now,” says spokeswoman Amanda Maddox. The committee, she says, is reviewing the process for adding diseases to the list of those the VA presumes to be service-connected. 

Clear signs of momentum notwithstanding, Torres is pessimistic about meaningful progress this year or next. “It’s my opinion that nothing will happen in the current session, but I don’t speak for everyone,” she says.

Still, says Torres, advocates for veterans and service members exposed to burn pits have advantages over those who waged similar battles in years past. During much of their decades-long struggle for recognition, Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange couldn’t rely on social media or viral Internet videos. The VA first recognized a service connection for certain illnesses attributable to the carcinogenic herbicide in 1991 but continued to exclude Navy sailors exposed on blue-water ships until this year — long after many had succumbed to related illnesses. By contrast, Jennifer Kepner — a practicing physician for whom Ruiz named his bill mandating VA care — documented her losing battle with cancer, daring the public to look away.

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Rosie Torres is Le Roy’s primary caregiver. She helps her husband with his oxygen tank in their home.

Source Ryan Chipman for OZY

“These are professional people — doctors, lawyers, nurses — who also happened to serve their nation,” says Torres. “We are equipping them with the tools to become self-advocates.”

As self-advocates, the Torres family —  they have three adult children, one of whom serves in the military — continues to face a hard climb. Start with Le Roy’s more than 250 medical visits since coming home, most of which aren’t a trip across town. Because his toxic brain injury isn’t an “open wound,” the Corpus Christi VA clinic — 30 minutes from the Torres’ home in Robeson, Texas — won’t cover the hyperbaric treatments recommended by Le Roy’s medical team, he says. Instead, he and Rosie drive to a facility in Dallas, six hours each way. At home, Rosie is Le Roy’s primary caregiver. Some days are better than others, but debilitating headaches can strike with little warning, laying Le Roy up for days.

After he was forced to resign from his 14-year career in civilian law enforcement in August 2012, Le Roy’s application for state medical retirement was denied. Meanwhile, the class action suit he’d joined against KBR died in January, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal.

But Le Roy’s suit against the state of Texas — contending that the public safety department’s handling of his disability and his removal from the force constituted discrimination against service members — carries on. The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.

“This journey began almost 10 years ago, and we’ve come too far to look back,” says Le Roy. “We’re going to keep pressing on.”

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