“Now the real work begins…”
It was the thought that raced through my head as I stood a few feet away from President Joe Biden as he signed Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson honoring our pledge to fight full toxic substances – or PACTE law.
The legislative process had taken decades to prepare, with many starts and stops along the way. As joyful as signing the bill was, successful implementation is even more important before those who suffer from deployment-related respiratory illnesses, including my husband, Army Capt. Le Roy Torres, n get the help they need.
Although Le Roy’s story is like many others more than 3 million soldiers deployed in the Middle East since 9/11 is also different. After his tour of duty in Iraq in 2007, Le Roy returned home with a debilitating lung injury caused by exposure to a toxic combustion fireplace. The severity of his condition cost him his position as Texas State Trooper. His case made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, and even though the court ruled in our favor, our litigation continues in the lower court as we fight for Le Roy to receive what he has right.
Unfortunately, many others suffer the same fate as Le Roy – or worse. The culprit is often burn pits, a method of incinerating waste on military bases. Burning materials such as plastics, medical waste and batteries – using jet fuel as an accelerator – injects harmful chemicals into the air and can irrevocably damage the lungs and health of those who breathe it.
Previously, veterans had to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their illnesses were service-related. This was extremely difficult with limited selection options and a lack of established processes at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The entire burden of proof was on the veteran. But under the PACT Act, there is now a presumption that a veteran’s illness is service-related. By removing the burden of proof, the new law should help veterans exposed to toxic substances and airborne hazards access the health care options and benefits they have earned. However, in cases like my husband’s, the only definitive way to diagnose his disease is through a surgical lung biopsy, a barbaric procedure that carries its own set of risks.
The adoption of the PACT law is a positive development. But implementing it is also a major undertaking that will create new challenges for the underfunded and understaffed AV. How will they conduct the toxic screening exposures mandated by the PACT Act? Can they manage staffing with doctors, nurses and administrative staff to handle the expected influx of veterans seeking care?
The VA must rise to the challenge and do so effectively and efficiently – it is no easy task for the government’s second-largest ministry and its over 300,000 employees. As a 23 year old VA employee, I know the wheels can turn slow. Fortunately, there are new technologies on the market that the VA can leverage to expedite treatment and provide further relief to veterans suffering from deployment-related respiratory illnesses, estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
Remember, these are veterans we’re talking about. When they signed up to serve, few had heard of burn pits, let alone the dangers of exposure to burn pits as well as dust storms and other particles. Our troops never imagined that it would be up to them to demonstrate a correlation between injuries sustained and their service.
Truth be told, I have no idea how much time I have left with my husband. Nobody does. His disease is progressing, its impact is severe and we have no illusions about the future. Every day with our family is truly a gift.
Our future is uncertain, but we remain hopeful that the PACT law can help others in our situation. To achieve this, its implementation must be given the same level of attention and energy as its adoption. Lives depend on it – and in the most literal sense of the word.
National cameras may have moved on, but America’s veteran community is still sick and dying.
Rosie Torres is a senior advisor at 4D Medical and co-founder and executive director of BurnPits 360, a nonprofit that advocates for Congress to help veterans with injuries from military exposure. Torres is a National Veterans Advocate who worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs for 23 years.