An American flag dangles from the Torres home, the sign of a long battle won: a new law — signed Thursday by President Barack Obama — creating a registry of U.S. service members perhaps sickened or killed by burn pits used throughout Iraq and Afghanistan to destroy waste ranging from batteries to body parts.
But amid occasional smiles over the first step to formally identify the toxic effects of what’s called “this generation’s Agent Orange,” there were tears, too, in that house near Corpus Christi, Texas. Resident Le RoyTorres, 40, a former Army captain, is one of the ill veterans who will land on that list.
“It was a big victory. It justifies the need for health care. And now we know we’re not alone,” said Rosie Lopez-Torres, Le Roy’s wife, who said she “knocked on a lot of doors” in Congressional hallways to push the bill, which passed Dec. 30. The law requires the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to assemble the registry and report back to Congress.
“But because of (our) finances, because my husband can’t work, today was also one of the toughest days for us,” Lopez-Torres said Wednesday. “Today, he was in tears. I’m not going to sugar coat that. How do I convince this once-strong, 6-foot-tall man who never missed a day of work: ‘You are the same man.’ But as the head of the household, he said: ‘You don’t understand what this has done to me.’ So it’s hard. But we still hang that flag on our porch. This has nothing to do with the military. This has to do with the contractors.”
After a lung biopsy, Le Roy Torres was diagnosed in 2010 with constrictive bronchiolitis, an irreversible disease that squeezes off airways. In 2007 and 2008, he was stationed in Balad, Iraq — home to what may have been largest military burn pit — the size of 10 football fields. Torres, for a time, performed his daily calisthenics near the dark plumes emitted by the smoldering crater.
Forced by breathing problems to later retire from his post-Army job as a highway patrolman, Torres is one of thousands of veterans who have filed more than 50 lawsuits against defense contractors hired to handle waste management in the war zones. The Motley Rice law firm is representing Torres and other veterans and their survivors in one of those class-action suits.
Attorneys allege the contractors — including KBR, Inc. and its former parent company, Halliburton — mismanaged the burns and exposed American troops to poison fumes. Last July, KBR’s lawyers argued that 55 such cases should be dismissed, in part because employees from the Houston-based company served “shoulder-to-shoulder” with service members, which should grant KBR the same immunity given to government entities and personnel, such as soldiers.
Service members, however, have complained for a decade that burn pits scattered across Iraq and Afghanistan were making them sick with cancers and other diseases, and were killing some young troops. In 2007, Army and Air Force health inspectors went to Balad and measured airborne, cancer-causing dioxins at 51 times the “acceptable levels.” They determined the cancer risk for people serving at the base for more than one year was eight times higher than normal. In 2008, the Military Times reported that single burn pit might have exposed tens of thousands of troops to dioxins and toxins such as arsenic.
What has been the health toll on U.S. troops? That’s what the new registry is designed to calculate, said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a group representing more than 200,000 former service members.
“This is something we’ve been fighting for, for years. It will be one database where doctors can go and look at the common symptoms. It also will help verify the problem quicker so vets can get the care they need,” said Rieckhoff, who served as a first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq during 2003 and 2004. He has experienced respiratory problems, although he cannot pinpoint the cause. “I don’t know too many people who weren’t exposed to a burn pit sometime during their deployment. They were constant.”
The smoking landfills typically contained damaged Humvees, unexploded ordnance, gas cans, mattresses, rocket pods, plastics, medical waste and amputated body parts, and they often were ignited by jet fuel.
The act does not mandate new VA benefits for veterans who chronically inhaled the vapors, Rieckhoff said. But the registry is expected to help private and government doctors document health conditions potentially related to burn pits, and perhaps hasten many diagnoses.
“It will help us get to the bottom of what’s causing so many vets to be sick,” he added. “We don’t know what toxic exposure is going to be (shown). It could be our generation’s Agent Orange (the defoliant used in Vietnam, later shown to be carcinogenic). But it’s important that you start with data. Data will be a critical part of identifying the problem and then creating good treatment. I’m glad we didn’t have to wait decades like the Vietnam veterans did around Agent Orange.”
Le Roy Torres, for example, has been given a 10 percent disability rating by the VA, said his wife, who calls that ruling “a joke” because “he served for 22 years, lost his childhood dreams, his career, just turned 40 and is unable to work because of his lung disease which also has affected his heart.” The Torres family is fighting the VA for a higher disability rating and, thus, higher compensation for his service-related symptoms.
Before the lawsuits and the law, a handful of military families launched their own, online registries for service members, veterans and their survivors so they could report their symptoms and mark how closely they had served to one or several of the burn pits.
As Le Roy Torres struggled harder to breathe, he and his wife launched BurnPits360.org. The site lists 11 service members who descended from full health to terminal cancer after serving near a burn pit.
That roll includes Air Force Sgt. Jessica Sweet, who died of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in 2009 at age 30. She served in Afghanistan. Also listed is Army Staff Sgt. Steven Ochs, who died from AML in 2008 at age 32. He served in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the registry's primary goals is to determine if there are tangible links between the deaths of service members like Sweet and Ochs and their exposure to the burn pits.
“How many have been affected? Every week I get an email from someone who has passed,” Rosie Lopez-Torres said. “We started our registry because we weren’t going to wait on the Department of Defense and VA. Our list of people who have self reported their data — whether it’s the loved one of a fallen hero who lost the battle with toxic exposure, or someone who is fighting the battle — is well over 1,000 people. They are from all over the country.
“The hardest thing for us is trying to figure out the finances day to day, and hearing (from the government) ‘just wait’ on your retirement check,” she added. “He’s hearing, ‘wait, wait, wait’ but he’s having to provide for his family. And he’s looking at his life and saying: “What am I going to do now?’”