Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
In this special episode, Captain Torres explains how landfill-like burn pits in Iraq gave him a chronic lung injury and a toxic brain injury.
Captain Le Roy Torres served in the U.S. Army Reserve for 24 years, and spent a year on duty in Balad, Iraq. While there, Torres lived and worked in close proximity to a burn pit. These burn pits act as landfills, where everything from trash, to jet fuel, to medical waste was burned. They were extremely large, and the one near CPT Torres was approximately 10 acres in diameter. It burned 24/7, pumping toxic chemicals and smoke into the air, and into the lungs of soldiers.
As a result of breathing in these fumes, CPT Torres developed chronic lung and brain injuries, which forced him to visit the hospital over 400 times in 10 years.
Burn Pits 360 was founded by Torres and his wife in an attempt to improve post-deployment health outcomes for veterans, especially those caused by the burn pits. Recently, they helped pass the PACT Act, which expands benefits for veterans who were exposed to the burn pits.
Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. If you love listening to this show as much as I love hosting it, I think you’ll really like the Medal of Honor Podcast, produced in partnership with the Medal of Honor Museum. Each episode talks about a genuine American hero, and the actions that led to their receiving our nation’s highest award for valor. They’re just a few minutes each, so if you’re looking for a show to fill time between these warriors episodes, I think you’ll love the Medal of Honor Podcast. Search for the ‘Medal of Honor Podcast’ wherever you get your shows. Thanks.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, in a special episode, we’ll hear from Captain Le Roy Torres. Torres served in the U.S. Army Reserve for 24 years, and spent a year on duty in Balad, Iraq. When he returned home, he discovered he had sustained several physical injuries that were unrelated to combat.
Le Roy Torres:
My name is Leroy Torres. I was a captain in the Army Reserve. I served for 23 years until I was medically retired. I was a logistics officer at first going way back.
I was medically retired as a captain in the Army Reserve, but I was prior service. My connection with the military goes back even to my childhood. I wanted to join the military since elementary. My dad served in the Korean war. My dad was drafted during the Korean war, and I always saw my dad as my hero. He inspired me to be in the military. And that's one thing since I was an elementary, I wanted to join the Army and also to work as a state trooper. I had already made up my mind as a child that's what I wanted to do later on in life in my careers.
I joined at 17. I was still in high school when I joined the military. I joined the Army National Guard. I remember I was already talking to recruiters when I was 16 years old, and I wanted to join as early as I could. It was a trying season for my mom. Since I'm the youngest, my mom had a difficult time signing off for me since I was underage, but it was something that I wanted to do since- as a child. And I enlisted I remember December 9th, 1989. I enlisted in the Army National Guard and I completed my junior year of high school. And within a week, I was already at Fort Benning, Georgia at basic training following my junior year. Throughout that time, I, of course, finished my basic training. I came back to finish my senior year in high school and was still attending my battle assemblies throughout the year. And then as soon as I graduated from high school within a week again, I was back and forth for my advanced individual training for infantry school there at Fort Benning, Georgia again.
Even serving part-time in the National Guard, there was still... I didn't feel complete. I wanted to go active duty. So I had a four year scholarship to University of Texas in Austin, and I finished one year and I was in ROTC. And actually I'll tell you a quick story:
One of my professors said, “Hey, I want you to promise me one thing. I want you to finish college once you finish your active duty”, but I kept bothering them. “I want to go active duty.” And they were trying to say, “Well, just wait until you finish your four years.” But I was so determined to serve active duty. In March of 1992, I went active duty through December of 1996.
I remember I almost went back to active duty because I didn't get selected with the state police academy. Actually, I applied three times to the academy, and that first time I applied, I was still in active duty, I had come back home and I didn't get accepted. So what I did, I joined the reserves two months after. So February 1997, I'm already in the reserves because I almost went back active duty because I missed it so much.
In April of 1997, I was already on a humanitarian mission in Central America and Belize. I spent two weeks down there already because my short major was like, “Man, I know you have it. It's in your blood. You ready to do some active duty time?” So he sent me on that humanitarian mission. But throughout that time through 1997 and not until 1998, when I was finally accepted and at the same time, I kept the promise to my military professor. I went back to school, back to college. I started attending classes while I was working at a correctional facility. And then in 1998, I was accepted to the state trooper academy. So throughout my time as a state trooper, I'm still... because they allow me to still attend my battle assembly during those 26 weeks, 26 during those weeks of training. And fortunately I ended up stationed back in Corpus Christi, Texas. So this is back to 1999. So throughout these years I'm serving in the reserves.
In 2001, 9/11, I remember I was in El Paso, Texas, and I was visiting my uncle who was terminally ill. I remember seeing the news that morning. I'll tell you what, just my heart rate, I just couldn't wait to get back. I was already serving as a state trooper, and minutes after the attacks I remember I received the phone call from my agency that I had to come back to Corpus Christi. Since we have the port of Corpus Christi, we were on alert. Our tactical team was placed on alert with the state police. I'll tell you what, it was something that just really motivated me, even like me at that time, like “Man, I'm ready to go and serve if duty calls. To be activated.” I was ready to go, but it was really a moment that I felt that I needed to be with my brothers and sisters who were about to answer their call, but it was definitely a moving time in my life when I received the news about the 9/11 attacks.
I was actually born in Corpus. I grew up in Corpus Christi. I was born in Corpus. And actually, I graduated from the DPS Academy in 1999, and that was my first duty station. That was my only duty station. So for 14 years I served to DPS. I was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas.
I was enlisted at the time, and our commanding general came down. This is back maybe in 2001. He came down to our unit, and actually my short major approached me. He said, hey, I want you to take the CG. I want you to be his driver and take him down to the valley, which is to the border or boarder units, which is about two hours south from Corpus. And one of the first things that the general asked me he said, I was a staff sergeant, he goes, "Staff Sergeant, is there any reason you're not an officer?" And my BC was there, then commander. I said, "Well, Sir, honestly, I just haven't gone back to school." And he says, "Well, I think you'd be a good damn good officer." He told me “You'd be a damn good officer.” I recommend you go back and do that. I'll tell you what, that next semester that's what led me back to start to enroll back in college. And once I earned my degree, the reserve, the 95th division was actually offering direct commissions at the time.
Since I already had my degree, I just went before a board in Oklahoma city, Texas. The board, I passed it with flying colors, and lo and behold, December of 2004, I was granted my commission as a second lieutenant, which is pretty awesome.
Actually, I ended up at a union in San Antonio, Texas with 95th division. I worked in the brigade. My branch, I was AG, adjunct general branch. I was actually working in, they put me in the Brigade S1, which was to me, was an experience working for a full brig colonel. It was pretty awesome as my first assignment as a first lieutenant. But thankfully my prior service, it was very... My experience as enlisted was a huge, huge help in serving. The way I just approached soldiers and the way we worked together, it was just amazing as that was my first duty assignment as a commission officer.
I was deployed to Balad, Iraq in 2007. At that time, I was already a First Lieutenant. Initially, I was supposed to go to Afghanistan, received the phone call. I'll never forget. I was at a coffee shop with my dad, and I had just taken him to the VA clinic. We're sitting at the coffee shop and he goes, “Man, son, it's great that you haven't been activated.” In not even five minutes my phone rings, and it's my wife. She said, “Hey, your number's been called, so you've been activated. You're going to Afghanistan.” So I walked back in the coffee shop and told my dad, "You won't believe what just happened," I said, "I'm headed East." But my dad says, "You know what? It was just a matter of time." This was in 2007. November of 2007. A week before Thanksgiving, I arrived in Balad, Iraq.
I remember stepping off that shuttle, and one of the first questions... And me working in law enforcement, I ask a lot of questions, I'm very observant. One of the first was, what is that smell? What is that stench in the air? “Oh, that's just the burn pits where they burn all the waste.” I'm like, man, that's like a landfill. I mean, normally when people say it's a burn pit you picture not a significant hole or just in the ground where they burned the waste. But when I went and I saw this, of course, from a distance because it was all fenced and it was secured, I said, man, this thing is massive. And I remember I began to ask questions about the burn pits. “Hey, is this legal? I mean, are they following EPA guidelines?” And, of course it was, “Well, it's not…” In other words, we stay in our lane, that's handled by the contractor, so we don't worry. We don't worry about that. So pretty much we just stayed in our lane, that's what we were told to do.
A burn pit is just imagine a landfill size. Balad, Iraq had the largest burn pit in Iraq. It was approximately 10 acres in diameter. So this was a large, huge pit landfill where they would burn all... Just imagine everything that's thrown into the trash plus medical waste, amputated body parts from the Balad hospital was just set ablaze with jet fuel and burned from plastic bottles to styrofoam equipment. So you name it. Everything that was thrown in the trash was thrown in that pit. That's with JP fuel, and lit on fire, and it burned 24/7. So at times you would see the plume of smoke. I mean, sometimes it'd be darker times depending on what they were burning.
I was within a mile from this burn pit. And even at that time, I was assigned to a logistics unit. Our work area was even closer to the burn pit. And every time you could even taste that smoke, this nasty stench in your mouth. And it's the stench even at times that if I smell something, boy, man, it smells like... It reminds me. It takes me back to that stench. But thinking of a burn pit, I mean this thing was massive. I've talked to other folks like, man, when you mentioned burn pits, we thought it was just maybe like an eight foot diameter hole in the ground where they burn waste. No, just imagine 10 acres of just waste being burned constantly. This is 24/7, this burn pit was how it was maintained, but you name it, everything that was disposed. And to know that no telling what all was thrown in there, that included the medical waste from the hospital. I mean, just to think that we were inhaling and ingesting these toxic fumes. No wonder that it is taking a toll on our bodies.
But a month after I was there, December 30th, I still remember because I kept my sick call slip, I remember going to the troop medical clinic for urgent care. I was having these coughing spells like dry cough, but like sinus issues. Well, when I saw the physician he goes, yeah, you're dealing with the Iraqi crud. He goes, your body is adjusting to the environment. I'm like, okay, I'll give it that. So they quarantined me for 72 hours. I had a stomach bug and upper respiratory infection. They put me on Z-Pak. And I got over it. It took me maybe about two weeks to get over that. But I noticed that throughout my deployment, I continued to have issues, especially after I would come back from physical training. We would go run with our section there at the stadium they had there in Balad. I would come back and I would just have this drainage from my sinuses, from my nose. I would take a shower, and this stuff was just coming out of my sinuses. And I said, “Hey, I don't know if this is the environment.” I said, “I think this is taking a toll on us.” When I told my wife, I said, “Yeah…” As I was talking to her, she said, “Hey, you sound like you're raspy or you're coming down with a cold.” I said, “No, there's this burn pit up there, and they get rid of all the waste. They burn all this waste, so I think that's having an effect on us.”
But that's how my journey started. Then I started waking up with headaches. This is already going back maybe halfway through my deployment. I started waking up with headaches, and I noticed that they were getting worse. Then the respiratory infections started. I started having the issues again with these flare-ups. So I ended up going back to the TMC. Again, he put me on Z-Pak, the same thing. Well, you're dealing with an upper respiratory infection. I said, well, I've already been here for a month. And I said, “Is this still Iraqi crud?” He said, “Well, everybody's different. Your body's just dealing with some changes, but here's some Z-Pak medication.” It was the same thing over and over.
I remember at the end of my deployment towards the end, I started having these tremors. My hands were shaking, and I would tell some of my friends. The thing is I didn't go with my unit. I was an individual augmentee, so I didn't know anybody in this unit. But during that time, when I reconnected with my unit, I would ask questions and said, “Hey, are you feeling any issues?” “Oh, yeah”, the hacking cough and issues that they had been dealing with as well.
But I noticed that I started having these tremors. It took me a few months to finally, this just went away. These tremors when I came back. But I remember coming back, and three weeks later I was in the emergency room, and I had a horrific upper respiratory infection. And one of the first things the doctor asked me, hey, have you been around any chemicals? You've been exposed to anything? I said, I was in Iraq. I've been back for about three weeks. I was around these burn pits where they burn waste. And then he goes, “Okay, I'll be right back.” The doctor comes back with a mask, and that's when I started, kind of, flags raising up. And there's something, I believe, that affected me from the exposure to these burn pits. I remember they sent me home, and I told my wife, “I think I'm going to have some issues here in the future.”
I'm going to back up a little bit. I remember before I left Balad, Iraq, I was handed a memo from Curtis. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. And it talked about the hazards of burn pits in Balad, Iraq. And when I received that memo, that's when I knew like, okay, I know where this is going. They said, this is for your medical record. And I knew, I said, “You know what? This is going to be... There's going to be some issues we're going to deal with.” And sure enough, my sixth sense that I always had throughout my deployment, I remember even telling my wife... One thing my wife noticed when I came back home, she said, I notice that you sleep with the sheets over your head. I said, well, I used that as a filter. I noticed when I would wake up in the mornings, and I'd go outside my housing unit, there was soot on the AC unit, and I would just wipe it. And it was just like this chalky residue. I said, this is from the burn pit. This is crazy. I would ask questions in my unit or people that I came in contact with, they'd say, oh yeah, it's just from the burn pits. They burned a lot more of the waste at night. So this is what we’re inhaling, we're taking this stuff in.
Once I received that letter and I came back home and then I ended up in the emergency room, that's when I told my wife, you know what? This is not got to be good here in the future things that I'm going to have to be dealing with. And sure enough, I went back to work finally. My dad was terminally ill when I came back from Iraq, so he was in hospice for four months. I spent a lot of time with my dad before he passed. I didn't go back to work until March 2009.
I came back in November of 2008, March 2009, I'm back at work. And I remember waking up with headaches, having the raspy voice, and that's one thing to this day that I deal with. My wife's like, it sounds like you have something in your throat like you're congested. I say, well, I'm having sinus issues, but I would always play it off because my fear was I did not want to lose my job as a state trooper because it was my childhood dream, and I didn't want to lose my job. That was the fear that I always had. As in our generation, our era in the Army was, the motto, “Hey, suck it up, drive on.” And that's what I did. That's what I did. I would wake up with these excruciating headaches. My God, I was pounding so much Tylenol just before I'd go to work, just to try to suppress the pain.
And then, again, I ended up going to urgent care with the flare-ups. Again, oh you're dealing with upper respiratory infection, here's another Z-Pak. It was like every couple of weeks I ended up going to urgent care for treatment.
In 2010, August of 2010, I remember I was transferred to the driver's license office. It was for a promotion. It was to take a break from the highway. They put me on Monday through Friday's schedule, which was good, so I could spend more time with family. So it was a good move for me and my family. I was working Monday through Friday, but I was working in an office environment while I started having these flare-ups a lot more. Of course, later I find out that that building had mold. A few years later, I found out. I told my wife, man, it's like, I'm always sick. When I'm at work, I feel worse. And the headaches are worse.
Well, August 2010, my Sergeant, he came in the office, he goes, "Man, you've been coming in with this horrific cough and you have to work with the public here. People are starting to ask questions." He said, "Maybe you're very contagious. And we know you were in Iraq, so you need to address the issue." Because at that time I had already started, I was missing work. Because of these issues, I was out sick with a cold. It's like you seem to always be getting these recurring colds. So you need to get checked out. Sure enough, they sent me home. They actually told me to leave. They said, “You need to go home and you cannot return to work until you have answers.”
Well, August of 2010 is when our journey began seeking for answers as to what was going on with me, I was having horrific... I began to have shortness of breath...
I'm going to back up a little bit. In the summer of 2009, it was the summer of 2009, I was in a foot pursuit. And I remember once I apprehended the suspect, I started having a lot of chest pressure. I remember I had to take a knee. I mean, we were a one man unit. So backup usually took 15 minutes. So by the time backup arrived, I had the guy in custody. I remember one of the officers that backed me up goes, man, are you okay? I said, man, I don't know. I feel lightheaded. I thought I was having a stroke. I just felt a lot of pressure in my chest. It took me, my goodness, probably maybe 15-20 minutes. I just had to sit it off for a little while. And that's when I noticed there's something wrong, I said something's going on with my lungs. I just couldn't put my finger on it.
We went to Brook Harbor Medical Center, went to Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, went to Audie Murphy, VA hospital. And they looked at me like, man, maybe it's in my head. I remember going to Baylor University Hospital in Houston and the doctor gave me psych medications, and he patted my back. He goes, this is going to help you relax. And that's when I walked out of the office, and at this time I'm already frustrated because we couldn't find answers. I took that piece of paper, and I balled it up and I told my wife, you know what, let's go. We're not getting nowhere with finding answers to what's wrong with me because they couldn't pinpoint. My pulmonary function tests were normal, and at that time, my wife's already connecting with families on social media and met with these families that were also... She started researching about burn pits. Sure enough, she connected with families. We connected with Dr. Robert Miller out of Nashville, Tennessee at Vanderbilt University Hospital. Well, Dr. Miller was already doing research for years. He was seeing soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division that had been exposed to the sulfur fires in Iraq and also to burn pits. He had already done maybe like 49 lung biopsies at the time. I think all of them but two were all positive for constricted bronchiolitis.
And when my wife found Dr. Miller, I said, “You know what, we're going to go see Dr. Miller.” And, of course, we go to the VA. Thankfully, Dr. Figueroa at the time, he was in Iraq, so he knew what I was talking about. But as far as a lot of other physicians like, “No, maybe it's anxiety”, or maybe I was developing asthma just everything else, but nothing to do with burn pit exposure.
Well, in the fall of 2010, this is around maybe September of 2010, the VA I finally get approved to go to the War Related Illness and Injury Center in Washington, DC. So they admit me to the hospital, I'm in there for four days. Upon my discharge, the chief pulmonologist, their findings were, you do have shortness of breath, but it's unknown etiology.
So my wife at that time has already connected with families. She's aware that some veterans have already passed away, either from different types of cancers, leukemia, which the family said it has to be connected to burn pit exposure. Well, at that time she asked the doctor, “I want a lung biopsy. I want you to do a lung biopsy on my husband because he needs answers. He can't go back to work until we have answers.” And, of course, their response, “Well, we're not equipped to do biopsies. It is one thing that we cannot... We don't have the resources do that here at this facility.” I said, “But you're the War Related Illness Injury study center, you're supposed to be capable of doing that.”
Of course, that was another door closed for us. And at that time, my wife had already been talking to Dr. Robert Miller at Vanderbilt University Hospital. On November 16th, 2010, I was already there. I had my lung biopsy there at the Vanderbilt Hospital. I'm going to back up a little bit. Before on our initial visit, he goes, I'm not going to recommend the biopsy because just from your symptoms and the CT scan did show air trapping on your lower lobes of your lungs, I could pretty much guarantee that you have constricted bronchiolitis. But because you're telling me that your job needs answers and we'll have to move because it's an invasive procedure, it's painful. And I'll tell you what, I needed answers, but it took a year for me to recover from that lung biopsy. I couldn't even lay on my right side for a year because they took it in three areas. Of course, one was for the chest tube, but they cut me in two other areas, and they took a small wedge of my lower lobe on the lower lobe of my lung. That's when they discovered that... When the surgeon walked in the next day when I came to, he showed me the picture of my lungs, and he asked me, he said, "Are you a smoker, Son?" I said, "No, Sir. I never smoked in my life."
And he showed me the lungs. I could see inflammation. And the way he was explained to me, you have peribronchial fibrosis, you have constricted bronchiolitis. You have a lung injury and this is from exposure, toxic exposure. I remember before I was wheeled into the operating room, my wife, her words to me were “You know what, I'm going to make you a promise.” She said, “I'm going to fight for you no matter what the outcome is.” And she was crying. “No matter what the outcome is, I'm going to fight for you because you're not going to be the last one that's going to go through this. There's going to be many more.” And going back over a decade, she kept her promise.
But that was difficult for me to accept because I already knew, the first thing I thought about, “I'm going to lose my job.” That was one of the first things that I thought. I said, “This is my childhood dream.” I started having a lot of very difficult seasons in my life knowing that it was the way when the doctors explained to me, this is a permanent condition, it is irreversible and that even it may progress later in life. So, of course, we come back home.
Actually, we met a family in Nashville, Staff Sergeant Ochs, Steve Ochs. Actually, he was with the 101st. He passed away around 2008, but Stacey Pennington had already been advocating for her brother regarding burn pit exposure, toxic exposure. Well, we connected with the family. They took us in for the two weeks that I was there because I couldn't fly back because the doctors were afraid that my lung may collapse, so I had to have family. They traveled to Tennessee and picked me up and then drove me back. We were there for two weeks. I didn't get back home until, actually we spent Thanksgiving on the road in 2010, Thanksgiving 2010, which was difficult because we couldn't see our kids. We finally made it back home. This was a time that I was afraid to talk to my agency because I knew that they were going to secure my job at that time. And sure enough, I come back home. I talk to my supervisor, I say I have a permanent condition, I have a lung injury, associated because of burn pit exposure, toxic exposure, so I need a job accommodation. I said, “I can't come back to work and I can't fulfill my duties.” Well, then my service captain comes back and says, “Well, let's see what we can do for you.” But this is at the end of 2010. I go back to work 2011. I'm put on light duty. Well, it was just temporary. I go through 2011. I start, of course, start missing work again. The headaches get worse. I remember one time I was there at the office, and I was in so much pain that I had to go and check myself in at the VA clinic. Actually, as soon as I get there, they call me on oxygen, and they didn't know. They said, “I'm sorry, but we didn't know what to do for you.” So that's when our journey started also with the headaches. As of now, I have over 400 medical visits since I've been back. For me the routine to do with my headaches, I was put on IV meds and oxygen, and they would keep me for a few hours. Once the headaches would diminish, I would be discharged and “Here's some pain medication.” And that was my life with the headaches for 10 years.
I remember in 2018 I was diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy, which is a toxic brain injury. Throughout this time I told my wife I don't know what else to do anymore because we can't get answers. But we traveled to Colorado to have a [inaudible] scan, and that's where they discovered this brain injury. Throughout this time I noticed that I started having trouble with my short term memory, my cognitive abilities. I began to have issues. I would be talking to somebody and I would lose my train of thought. And it was very frustrating because even throughout this day at times I struggle with it, but I've learned to cope. And that's why I wore this oxygen because it's my rescue med for the headaches. This is what alleviates the headaches. Who would've thought that this is all I needed was some oxygen to alleviate the headaches. If I use it like I'm supposed to, it keeps me out of having to go to the emergency room, those visits.
That was a long 10 years of waiting for answers because the whole time I was given medication for a migraine headache, for migraine headaches, and all this time, I had a toxic brain injury. So this was something that I've dealt with for a long time.
Here recently, lately, I've been having a lot of GI issues. I've been having GI bleeds. I was in the hospital in January, this past January, for pancreatitis. Well, they say my pancreatitis was not functioning and four days later it's back to normal. So the doctor's like, man, this is a mystery. I've been having H-pylori infections for the last two years. I've been on so much treatment. I've been on so many antibiotics that it doesn't treat it. I'm just waiting to go to Mayo Clinic to see if they can help. But I've been dealing with these issues for 10 years, these mysterious GI bleeds.
Burn Pits 360 inception came about after our personal experience with the delay in denial issue, not only from not receiving the specialized healthcare or even special healthcare, but also the challenge with my job loss. And when my wife, when she told me that as they called me to the operating room, made me that promise. She began connecting with families. She created a website. This is from our kitchen at our home. She created a website, went to the list and created a website, just printed some brochures. I mean, this goes back to 2010. I remember being discharged from the War Related Illness Injuries study center. And we were holding luggage down the hallways of Congress following my discharge. She was handing out brochures that she had printed about talking about burn pits, what a burn pit is. So this goes back to 2010.
I say, it's passion driven that we made it this far, but when you get a group of committed families and brothers and sisters that you served along with, and I've lost some great brothers and sisters because of the illnesses that they were no longer here. And that was one of the, as I explained to some reporters that they have the passing of the PACT Act, that it was bittersweet because those that walked the hallways of Congress with us were no longer here. They passed away because of these illnesses. But knowing that Burn Pits 360 and throughout the years how this started just from our home kitchen, how it became an advocacy group. I remember in 2011, there was a Virginia quarterly review. Malcolm Garcia came and he did a story on us and our journey. He goes, “Man, this is grassroots.” Looking back how this started and how far that we have come, but knowing that because of the [inaudible], we've got a group of families that came together and we begin to advocate. We began to ask to network with researchers, with Dr. Miller. We began to work with him, with Dr. Anthony Zema who had already been doing research. But it was connecting families with those physicians. My mission was, I didn't want these fellow veterans to go through what I went through, not having answers, to having doors shut in their face or being told, “Hey, go and build momentum, then come back.”
But there were so many doors that were closed throughout the years. I remember in 2017, in DC, we had our first congressional briefing for briefing staffers on what burn pits are, and awareness and still like, well, the content was put out there, but it's like no soundbites. Everything was shut down. Nobody was listening. Well, in looking back, that persistence, and when you're passionate about something and you drive the key element to stick to your promise.
And there's promises that I made. I made a promise to my star major who passed away in 2014, Star Major Dovela. I remember conversations like that whenever I struggled with my health, and I said, you know what, I remember his voice says, “Sir…” His voice to me says, “Sir, you're going to be our voice when we're no longer here.” He said, “Don't give up on this fight because it's going to be a tough fight, but don't give up. “ He said, “You're going to be our voice when we are no longer here.”
It was those moments that inspired me to continue my fight, to continue the advocacy throughout the years, but in seeing how this came about here to the passing of the PACT Act, how much work and effort, but that democracy works, that it works. And when you get a group of veterans, I mean, I believe those values that you were taught in the military, like the Army, the soldier street, there are two lines that always stick to me: “I will never accept the defeat. I will never quit.” And those two lines I tell my wife, you know what, until the good Lord calls me or as long as I wake up with a breath... And there's times like yesterday I was having a tough day yesterday with the headaches. I was having a difficult day, but I told my wife when I wake up every day, I regroup and drive on, continue to press on this issue and bring the continued awareness for those that need the help.
A few days ago, there was a veteran that shared a testimonial where he was so grateful. He goes, I'm so glad to see this PACT Act. He said, I was finally granted my VA compensation. So just for his privacy, the advocacy group, they sent us a video, but it was awesome to hear from this one veteran. And one thing he said, he goes, well, now I don't have to worry if I pass that my children will be taken care of. So that brought a lot of peace to me that so many will be helped now that have been struggling. I struggled for over these 10 years. Thankfully, my case was approved by an individual. My DA case was finally approved after a couple of years because the Army did their own investigation. The Army did a line of duty investigation, and it was revealed that due to an instrument time at the war, that they discovered that my lung injury was due to burn pit exposure. And now if it had not been for that, who knows how long it would've taken for me to get that approval, but it brings so much peace and it brings this joy that now these veterans are not left out there in the cold, that now they can submit their claims and get the help that they need.
Staff Sergeant Will Thompson, double lung transplant survivor. We worked together, and actually he was part of the panel of that congressional briefing in 2017. He walked with us. Him and his family walked the hallways of Congress in 2017 and in 2018. And he was a great brother. No matter what condition he was in, he said, “Hey brother, I'm going to see if I can speak. I'm going to represent Burn Pits 360 and our fellow brothers and sisters.” He just had this heart of gold. Staff Sergeant Will Thompson, rest in peace. Unfortunately, he passed away here last year, December of last year. But just knowing actually at the PACT Act, the first vote, it passed the Senate the first time, I remember going to that press conference, and his wife Suzanne sent me a real nice card, a thank you card and had his picture. I actually had that on my binder on my SmartBook that I carry with me and I was sharing with people. I said, man, this is why we are here today for people. My brother Staff Sergeant Will Thompson, he's no longer here, but you know what? His legacy lives on because he fought so hard for us.
His last testimony that he gave to the Senate veterans, the veterans committee there in Congress, he had to Zoom because he was already not doing well, but he still said, you know what? I'll still testify. And he gave a statement. So it's people like staff Sergeant Thompson. I didn't get to meet First Class Keith Robinson, but I met his wife and his daughter and, oh, my God, his mother-in-law Susan, just amazing advocate.
Actually I met her in 2017, also at the congressional briefing. That's when we first met Susan. It was just amazing to connect. But working all these years, these past five years with those advocates have just made a tremendous impact in our lives knowing that when you put your thoughts together and when you come together with this passion, that no matter how many doors close on you... When the second vote, when it didn't pass, that it was a moment that we were going to quit and just fold. We had veterans out there. Actually, my wife stood out there at the Capitol steps for five days. She was out there during that fire watch veterans that came together. We had Tim Jensen from Grunt Style who was out there and said, “Man, we're going to stand with you. We're going to stand united and peacefully.” They advocated out there in a peaceful protest, and just showing the support. Actually, all the signs that they had out there, they gave them to my wife so they can bring back and to have as memorabilia from the Pact Act, and the passing, and all those days that they spent out there in the Capital. But just seeing the potential that was there, that we were victorious, and we didn't give up on that fight.
That was CPT Le Roy Torres. To learn more about him and Burn Pits 360, visit burnpits360.org.
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