Hispanic Iraq war veteran leads the fight against exposure to toxic waste from 'burn pits'
It was Le Roy Torres’ childhood dream to be a Texas state trooper.
After achieving his goal and serving on the police force for 14 years, he was devastated in 2012 to lose his job as a consequence of toxic poisoning from a military waste dump – known as a ‘burn pit’ - while serving in the U.S. Army Reserve in Iraq.
Today, Torres, aged 49, and his wife, Rosie, are leading two battles; one to keep him alive, and the other to alleve the suffering of thousands of other veterans like him who combined a public sector day job with service in military reserve units.
“I thought the war was over when I came home, but it followed me,” he said in a phone interview while undergoing experimental stem cell treatment in Medellin, Colombia, earlier this month. “They forced me out of the [police] department. I lost my house, my cars, my credit. It affected everything,” he added, clearly in pain between sessions involving spinal injections.
But their 13-year-long battle is finally beginning to bear fruit. Legislation to protect veterans from toxic waste is currently making its way through Congress and Torres’ case has also made its way to the Supreme Court.
Torres returned home in 2008 after 400 days deployment to Iraq as a captain in the Army Reserve working in logistics. The South Texas Hispanic was looking forward to going back to the job as a trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
But something was wrong. The chronic headaches and respiratory issues he had begun to experience while stationed in Iraq, wouldn’t go away. In fact, his condition was getting worse.
He tried to go back to his police job working on the street, but his lungs his lungs were no longer up to the physical demands of uniformed police work.
He requested a desk job while undergoing a battery of medical exams, visiting specialists all over the country, to try and find out what was wrong.
Years later, doctors diagnosed he had a toxic brain injury - toxic encephalopathy – as well as constrictive bronchiolitis, an irreversible lung disease.
Long before then, Torres had figured it out himself. While serving at Balad, the largest military base in Iraq, he had lived near a large open air garbage dump that constantly produced a plume of black smoke.
Known in military jargon as a ‘burn pit’, it was where jet fuel was used, day and night, to set fire to all manner of hazardous waste material – from used tired, vehicle parts, ammunition casings, batteries, plastics, medical waste and even amputated body parts.
“You could taste it in the air” - they called it 'Iraqi Crud'
“I believe deep down they knew this was going to affect the veteran community,” Torres says. “We were just downwind from the burn pit. There was smoke everywhere,” he added.
It was worst at night in his containerized sleeping unit as the toxic fumes came in through the air-conditioning unit. Torres says he used to put sheets over his head to try and bear the smell.
“You could taste it in the air,” he said.
Torres ended up in the urgent care facility on base with cough, headaches and abdominal pain. He developed a sinus problem, with a nasty grey phlegm. He was told it was just a case of the ‘Iraqi Crud’, an undetermined, generic sickness felt by many soldiers in Iraq. He was given some cough medicine and antibiotics.
When he began asking questions, he was told to stay out of it. The burn pits were handled by contractors, not directly by the military. “I’m not a complainer. So, we just had to literally suck it up,” he said.
It turns out that Torres’ military base, Balad, about one hour north of Baghdad, had the largest burn put in the country, covering about 10 acres. Meant to be a last resort for disposing of waste, they were widely employed in Afghanistan and Iraq, rather than building more expensive commercial incinerators.
U.S. military commanders ignored federal law and military regulations for years by burning hazardous waste in the open pits near military personnel, according to a federal audit in 2015.
Military service did not protect Torres from losing his job in Texas
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Back in the United States, Torres’ health issues persisted. He requested a desk job while undergoing a battery of medical exams, visiting specialists all over the country, to try and find out what was wrong.
Under U.S. law, returning GIs have the right to resume their civilian jobs. The law is also supposed to protect veterans who return with injuries, allowing them to return to an appropriate job that takes into consideration their physical condition.
But burn pit exposure was not at the time recognized as a service-related disability. Not only was he not entitled to benefits from the Veterans Administration, his superiors at the Texas Department of Public Safety warned him he needed to get back into the field, or resign his job. The Texas DPS did not answer a request for information regarding Torres’ job history.
When a doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville conducted a lung biopsy the result was shocking. “ He asked if I was a smoker. It was like someone poured pepper over my lungs,” Torres said.
When he sought benefits under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), Texas officials said he didn’t qualify as his illness was the result of federal work, unrelated to his state job.
Instead, he was forced to resign from the force. He filed a lawsuit against the state but it was dismissed by a judge who argued the State of Texas enjoyed “sovereign immunity” and cannot be sued in its own courts without its legislature's consent.
The first registry for burn pit victims created in 2014
After 23 years in the Army, seven on active duty and 16 in the Reserve, Torres was able to claim medical disability from the Veterans Administration but he and his wife decided to continue the fight. In the course of their medical travels they met others struggling with similar health issues, some who have since died.
Le Roy and Rosie Torres started their on informal registry of victims, called Burn Pits 360. In 2014, the Veterans Administration created an official burn pits registry which now includes more than 215,000 service members and veterans.
The registry does not list potential victims by race, but many are Hispanic, Torres says. Hispanics account for about 16% of all active-duty military, according to the Department of Defense.
It was the beginning of a national campaign that has since earned widespread support, in Congress too.
“There were a lot of us inhaling that smoke, all the time,” said Tim Jensen, a 40-year-old former U.S. Marine who has begun to experience health problems and has seen some of his military comrades die. “Le Roy and Rosie have led this charge in spite of everybody throwing obstacles in their direction. If it wasn’t for them this wouldn’t be a conversation. We’d continue to watch our brothers and sisters die,” he added.
Jensen, who now runs a large veterans apparel business, Gruntstyle, says the burn pits issue is crucial to preserving a professional military.
Supreme Court rules against sick veterans
In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a negligence lawsuit against defense contractors KBR Inc and Halliburton Co. brought by service members made sick by the burn pits. The court upheld a lower court ruling that found that the issue of who was responsible for the toxic burn pits was a “political question” that Congress should resolve, not the courts.
KBR argued it was under military control and had little discretion in deciding how to manage the waste on numerous military bases.
The burn pits cause has since been championed by Jon Stewart, the popular late night TV comedian who previously took up the cause of Sept. 11 first responders who developed health problems from inhaling toxic dust at ground zero.
The legal battle over burn pits heads to the Supreme Court and Congress
A bill was introduced in Congress last year that provides eligibility for health benefits and compensation to 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic risk, co-sponsored by Texas Reps Joaquin Castro and Raul Ruiz.
The U.S. House passed the measure last month. It now goes to the Senate where support is building.
“I’m grateful to Mr. Torres for his service to our nation and his advocacy for our veterans,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio told Univision in an emailed statement.
Rubio said the federal bureaucracy had “ignored the science behind burn pit exposure” for too long.
Today, Torres struggles with his breathing and receives supplemental oxygen through tubes in his nostrils. His wife hopes the stem cell treatment will improve his quality of life.
“He’s doing really good. His body’s accepting the stem cells well,” she said.
In what could be a major breakthrough, Torres’ lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 29. The decision, expected in June, will have far-reaching effects for the labor rights of veterans nationwide who risk losing their jobs in state government while serving in the military reserve.
Torres' lawyers say his unprecedented case involves a classic, constitutional battle between the rights of states and the federal system. While Texas argues that a state cannot be sued by its own citizens, Torres’ lawyers say his labor rights are legally protected under the War Powers Act, the federal law that allows troops to be sent abroad.
Brian Lawler, a retired Marine Corps Lt Col who is part of Torres' legal team told Univision Noticias he became interested in the case after his best friend died from a burn pit cancer.
The case is vital to the ability of the federal government to recruit citizens to serve their country, he argues.
“If the Supreme Court does not rule in our favor a state employee could be discriminated against due to his or her military service,” said Lawler, who served 28 years, including 17 in the Reserves. “That will serve as a major disincentive to stay in the Reserve. It’s a matter of retention,” he added.
If the Supreme Court rules in his favor, Torres will win the right to sue Texas, though he will still have to prove his case in state court.
“It’s been an amazing journey. I hope we are successful,” said Lawler.