Fire Watch Episode 3: Burn Pits and the Fight to Get Help

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August 13, 2022
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Episode Introduction

The PACT Act had a years-long, tumultuous journey to making it into law. It is meant to provide expanded health care for veterans affected by burn pit toxins and other exposures incurred during their service.

Veterans and their advocates camped outside of the Capitol for six days waiting for a moment that was years in the making and one that many of their friends and family – who died from toxic exposure – could not see themselves.

“Never again,” one veteran said.

Main Topics

  • Drew F. Lawrence, the PACT Act passes; a brief history.
  • Rosie Torres, co-founder of Burnpits360
  • Hosts Drew F. Lawrence and Rebecca Kheel talk with Patricia Kime about other important military stories for August 12.

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Transcript:

SPEAKERS

SPEAKERS

Samantha Turner, Rosie Torres, Dr. Craig Postlewaite, Danielle Robinson, Jon Stewart, President Biden, John Feal, Drew Lawrence, Republican, Patricia Kime, Rebecca Kheel

Drew Lawrence

Last week, dozens of veterans were getting ready to march toward the Senate gallery to witness a moment that for them had been years in the making. Go up to the third

Rebecca Kheel

floor, we’re gonna have your will your phones and electronics are going to store them into

Drew Lawrence

some walked on prosthetics or with canes. A couple had plastic lines leading from their noses to mobile oxygen tanks on their hips. Many walk briskly and purposefully, even after six days of waiting just outside the capitol during 90 degree weather and rainy nights, waiting for this moment. The mood was elated, but also it’s sometimes weary.

John Feal

But something could go wrong before now five o’clock. So don’t get your hopes up too high until it actually have.

Drew Lawrence

They’re about to watch the passage of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson honoring our promise to address comprehensive toxics Act, also known as the pact Act, a piece of legislation that provide health care and compensation to millions of veterans sickened by toxic exposure from so called burn pits used by the military over the last 30 years. The issue has been well known in the veterans community for years. But again, national attention in recent months with advocacy from comedian in 911, toxic exposure, a champion, Jon Stewart, here he is on the way to the gallery. So, John, how do you now that we’re walking in how do you feel going into the Capitol right now?

Jon Stewart

You know, it’s either go in and accomplish what we came here to do. Or it’s you know, I just hope it’s the right. I hope it’s the right answer. That’s all. You know, I’ve been down here enough to not get too excited until it’s done.

Drew Lawrence

The bill, which passed 86 to 11, after three Republican amendments were struck down, was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Wednesday. He addressed veterans and families, lauding the efforts of advocacy groups and saying that his own son, Beau, a former Army officer, died from burn pit exposure himself.

President Biden

You see the little guy who’s sitting right next to that’s my grandson, his daddy lost to the same burned kids, and he knows what you’re going through. The law expands access to health care and disability benefits for veterans harmed by toxic exposure. It empowers the Department of Veterans Affairs to move quickly to determine service members illness and related military service to see if they qualify and for families of veterans who died from toxic exposure. It means a monthly stipend a $2,000 a month for surviving spouse with two children it means access to life insurance, Home Loan Insurance, tuition benefits, and help with health care. This new law matters. It matters a lot. It matters a great deal because these conditions have already taken such a toll on so many veterans and their families. I’ve directed the Department of Veterans..

Drew Lawrence

Even though the bill was signed into law, most advocates knew someone who had died waiting for that moment. It come too late, they said. Many veterans are wondering what the help that promises will look like after its intense history, one that caused many of them to have to relive some of their worst moments as they pushed for its passage.

Samantha Turner

You know, I’ve served overseas, I’ve led people who have served overseas who have suffered from this type of exposure and chronic disease. And I’ve lost friends because of it.

Drew Lawrence

This is Samantha Turner. She’s a former Army officer.

Samantha Turner

Like I wasn’t the one that was out there doing that I was doing paperwork in a hooch, right? Enlisted folks… the folks that saved my life in many cases. They’re the ones that were exposed to this. They were just doing what we asked them and it’s really important that they seek out care and they get the care that they need.

Drew Lawrence

So what did the journey that led to this moment look like? Now that the PACT Act is passed, what can veterans expect from it? For Military.com, my name is Drew Lawrence. It is August 12. And this is Fire Watch. So, what is a burn pit? Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, troops burned waste. Lots of waste. This is Samantha Turner again…

Samantha Turner

Toxic exposure is basically when you’re exposed to something that you normally wouldn’t be exposed to. So they burn, we had to burn all sorts of stuff to get rid of solid waste. You know, you know, when you’re in austere environment, you don’t have solid waste disposal. So we would burn everything from medical equipment, to body parts to plastics to, you know, food waste to everything. And we would be around that, and we would be breathing that stuff. And, you know, it was kind of just a part of what we were exposed to while we were over there. This is something that you know, it goes into your body and stays in your body and then can it can come back in different ways. Asthma, autoimmune diseases, cancers, cancers, cancers, it can sneak up on you a lot later in life and hit you like a ton of bricks. So, you know, toxic,

Drew Lawrence

I want to take you back for a minute because burn pit exposure isn’t a new issue. It’s been covered in the press for over a decade. This is Kelly Kennedy. She’s the managing editor for the War Horse. And she first covered burn pits in 2008. Kelly, so you just came from the signing of the PACT Act by President Biden. And you also wrote about joint base Balad in Iraq in 2008, which is considered to be one of the first pieces on burn pits. Can you tell us a little bit about that piece and what it was like seeing the PACT act signed 14 years later?

Yeah, it was it was the first piece and it was terrifying, because, you know, we had to dig deep into the science. And I was afraid that I was gonna get beat down by DoD and VA as we were writing it. So to see that first story, build into hundreds of stories from so many people, and then go and see some of those people there today. The veterans, the journalist, you know, the comedians, it was, it was amazing. I mean, it was, it was kind of cool. It’s like the reason you go into journalism, right…

Drew Lawrence

And political promises to remedy the issue aren’t new either. A year after Kelly’s reporting, then President Barack Obama said, “I’m absolutely convinced that our commanders in theater are doing everything they can to protect their men and women. My overriding mandate to my agencies is that you get the best science possible, and then make decisions on how we can protect our men and women in uniform. How can we treat those who have been harmed?”

Dr. Craig Postlewaite

Yes. And And basically those those studies, which were very in depth, did not identify an increased risk of respiratory symptoms or disease at locations with burn pits as opposed to

Drew Lawrence

Dr. Craig Postlewaite, he was the Pentagon’s Director of Force Readiness and Health Assurance. And in 2014, he gave an interview with PBS about burn pits.

Dr. Craig Postlewaite

We know, however, that on an individual basis that it would be plausible for a specific individual maybe to acquire some kind of condition related to burn pits smoke depending on how close they were to the burn pit, how much smoke they breathe, individual susceptibilities and even exposure to other airborne particulates. And based on all of that, we, we feel that if there are people who have been harmed by burn pit emissions, the numbers are fairly low. But again, we the…

Drew Lawrence

The Pentagon now estimates that 3.5 million service members were exposed to burn pits, but because it had been denied for so long, it is unclear how many have gotten sick or died from that exposure. But veterans exposed to those pits did and continue to die unexpectedly — and early. This is Danielle Robinson in front of the Capitol in March. She’s the widow of Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson, an Army veteran who died of a very rare cancer, likely caused by his exposure to burn pits, and for whom the PACT act is named after…

Danielle Robinson

What I had to call hospice in to get come into our house and start the process of helping my husband die. He said, I don’t know how to give up. I don’t know how to take my last breath. I need all of you senators to understand what it is like to lay on the floor underneath your dying husband for seven hours, helping him die. If you pass this honoring our pact act, you are going to help so many veterans who are in the same situation on hospice right now. For those that may have to come and hopefully to take care of those that have cancers that can be curable. I asked you to do your duty and pass this…

Drew Lawrence

The Pact Act had faced a number of congressional setbacks with concerns over things like money and how that money is spent. Here are some Republicans in the House and Senate with their concerns.

Republican

I wish I could support the honor our PAC act and encourage every committee member to do the same but the Fed Fact is that we simply do not have the information we need to report the bill out of committee today. I also want to support toxic exposed veterans. And I also have serious reservations about this bill. Thank you, Mr. President, I rise because I want to express concerns that I have about a particular provision in the PACT Act… But we have to do them responsibly without breaking the bank, or making it harder for VA to care for other veterans. And what the PACT Act does is it expands this obligation on the part of the VA. And it expands it a lot by about $280 billion. Over the next…

You guys are all in a good mood right now. You’re on a high. Five o’clock there’s gonna be a vote…

Drew Lawrence

Veterans were frustrated with the red tape as they waited for days outside of the Capitol. On August 2, 2022, those frustrations had turned into exhaustion. A veterans crisis counselor was called to help anyone feeling the compounding effects of lac k of sleep, food, shelter, and the weight of the issue at hand…that was until…. That’s John Feal. You heard him joking around a bit earlier. But he’s a veteran and 911 toxic exposure aid advocate. And at around three in the afternoon, the group got word that there would be a vote on the issue. And they were going to be able to watch the voting happen from the Senate gallery. Hopes were high. But after over a decade of loss and false promises, many were wary, not only worried that they’d have the rug pulled out from under them, but for each other.

But here’s what I’m worried about. Because it happened in my guides, when you leave here today, because this purpose, this issue was bigger than all of us. Bigger than Jon Stewart, what. You’ll go home, you’re gonna go home, and you’re gonna ride that high for a couple of days. But then you’re going to need, you’re going to, you’re going to crave the attention, and you’re going to crave the need to be something to do something again. Go home and get help if you need it. Go home and get the counseling. If you need it. I do it now. I go to a therapist. After 19 years at this shithole. I still do it and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. But this issue is bigger than you and it’s going to absorb, it’s going to consume you and it’s going to swallow you. So, make today your finest day. Right away. Stay in touch with each other, support each other. And remember that you just helped 3.5 million motherfucking veterans and you guys….

Drew Lawrence

Once in the capitol veterans set in the rows of the Senate gallery. Some of them bounce their knees while others clasped hands. As senators slowly poured into the chamber. Some congressmen waved to the crowd after giving their vote to the clerk. Whispers were muffled in the gallery. The veterans were told to keep quiet as part of the Senate decorum. But once the bill passed…

On this vote the yeas are 86, the nays are 11. Under the previous order requiring 60 votes for the adoption of this motion to concur, the motion is agreed to.

Drew Lawrence

Veterans rushed out of the chamber to the Senate swamp for a presser and on the way I caught up with Jon Stewart and got his reaction here. We caught up as we were walking in what just happened and how do you feel about it?

Jon Stewart

Just relief man so happy for them and they can finally go home.

Drew Lawrence

And as the group gathered for the press conference, the elation was present, but bitterly pointed. Here’s Stewart again.

Jon Stewart

But I will say this: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a situation where people who have already given so much had to fight so hard to get so little. I hope we learned a lesson.

Drew Lawrence

And this is Rosie Torres, co founder of Burn Pits 360. We’ll catch up more with her later.

Rosie Torres

13 years ago my husband and I we rolled our luggage to Capitol Hill. We had no idea what we’re doing. We just knew that God had put something in our hearts to to carry out and we did it for all of the fallen that are not human. This is for Wesley Black. This is for Heath Robinson. This is for William Thompson….this is for all of them.

Drew Lawrence

For the veterans and their advocates, this was the culmination of years of pushing, reliving trauma associated with the burn pits. And remembering the ones that were lost too soon and too late to see the moment. Here’s Samantha Turner, again, the former Army officer.

Samantha Turner

I’m happy about it. I think this bill is gonna save lives and his bill is gonna support the veteran community. But I also I’m frustrated, and I want to make sure that veterans’ lives and veterans’ legislation is never used as a political football ever again. So the fight’s not over.

Drew Lawrence

Next, you’re about to hear an interview with Rosie Torres, who along with her husband, Le Roy, an Army veteran affected by toxic exposure, co-founded BurnPits360, an advocacy group that was at the forefront of pushing this legislation through Congress. Rosie is joining us by phone. Take a listen. That’s good. I know you’re busy. So I appreciate you taking some time to talk to me.

Rosie Torres

Oh, yeah, for sure. Yeah, definitely.

Drew Lawrence

So I just wanted to start out with asking about your nonprofit. And what the inspiration behind founding BurnPits360

Rosie Torres

My husband was the inspiration. It was my husband’s. So he came back from Camp Anaconda. And immediately when he returned, he was already admitted to the hospital with respiratory issues, when he started with those respiratory issues in Iraq. So I didn’t think anything of it at the time, and neither, and maybe he did, but he was hiding it from me. I thought it’s just a racket cred, which is what everyone else would call it. And as time progressed, his health declined. And, you know, he then started collapsing, couldn’t breathe, gasping for air. So they couldn’t understand what was happening. And him being a state trooper. They were like, we can’t have you on the highway, we can’t have you in the office. Like, we just don’t know what to do with you. You need to come back with an answer. And the VA and DOD, the only answer was always psych meds and unknown etiology. So a lot of this was just this employer saying, Give me an answer. We were the first organization on the Hill knocking on doors, passing out flyers standing outside of Walmart, you know what I mean? Like really telling people to pay attention, and they wouldn’t. You know, so we’ve been leading the way on this issues for probably 15 years.

Drew Lawrence

Can you tell us a little bit about the battle for this bill? I mean, there was so much rhetoric that was coming out of Congress about it. That was, it was honestly hard to keep track of where it stood.

Rosie Torres

I mean, we walked the halls for years, 13 years, year after year after year of dealing with gatekeepers, and political bureaucratics, just bull shit excuses about why they wouldn’t, why they couldn’t and why they shouldn’t. And in the end, it was very clear that they were playing partisan politics on the backs of sick and dying veterans.

Drew Lawrence

There, there may be some veterans listening to this who have been exposed to burn pits. And now that the PACT Act has been passed, if you could, you could tell them the first place that they should go looking to either get registered or try to get help for what they’re going through, where would you recommend that they go?

Rosie Torres

I mean, look for the for the details on the PACR Act specifically, I would go to the va.gov for resources of information on symptoms and conditions and you know, the VA environmental letter and all those other things they could go to BurnPit360.org, which is our website and they can access a lot of that information on there already. I mean, being their own advocates and and downloading those resources that are on our website. I think those are super important in navigating specialized healthcare, and navigating access to compensation benefits. You know, when you look at the list of symptoms, because you’re so you know, kind of leery about like wildly it could just be connected. Maybe not Maybe my brother or sister who’s in the military, like, maybe they’re worse off than I am. But we just don’t know like people are ticking time bomb, you will be fine one day and not Well, the next. So it’s your job to add to advocate for yourself and to educate your civilian doctors as well, including your DOD and VA doctors, by taking them those letters, the V, environmental letter, toxic exposure table that’s on our website. It’s this builds, I’m going to do everything for you, you also have to put in the work. And I feel that those documents that are on our website that we’ve put together in the last 13 years will really help people.

Drew Lawrence

If you could inform the public of one thing about this issue or this bill, and they could take away with it from it. One thing what what would that be

Rosie Torres

That I’m that I’m grateful that we were able to mobilize America the way we did on this injustice, and that I’m glad to see have seen to have been part of and witness America show up that day. The way they came together the way they showed up for us. I mean it this was trending on Twitter, right? This was all over the news. And that was because of the American people. I had a woman show up from Texas, who didn’t have kids who are veterans. Her husband was in a veteran. I don’t know her name. I’m trying to find her. But she showed up and stayed with us everyday through Firewatch. So it was the American people that said we must fulfill our moral obligation. And I’m so glad that they did because I don’t think we would have had the momentum we have today. Have they not understood that veteran sleeping on the chest of our of our capitol begging for help was okay with any American. It was not.

Drew Lawrence

Rosie Torres, thank you so much for spending time with us here on Fire Watch.

Rosie Torres

Thank you so much.

Drew Lawrence

Coming up next, we have our roundtable with my co host, Rebecca Kheel, and our guest Patricia Kime, who’s going to talk to us about some other great stories that are happening in the military this week. If you enjoyed this podcast you also might enjoy the PCS podcast, which is hosted and produced by our executive editor Amy Bushatz. Thanks for listening.

Rebecca Kheel

Hi, everyone. I’m Rebecca Kheel, congressional reporter for Military.com and your co host for Fire Watch. Joining us today for a roundtable is Military.com Reporter Patricia Kime. Drew, you just got done telling us all about the PACT Act. The bill is passed. But it sounds like veterans don’t think this is the end of the fight. Patricia, you’ve covered burn pits issues for a long time. What do you see as the future of this?

Patricia Kime

Well, the process is going to be now that claims that get filed and getting those through the system as well as getting burned pit veterans into the care. VA historically has had some small units that have taken a look at burn pit and deployment related illnesses. But there’s going to be some education of doctors and providers within VA about the illnesses associated with burn pits. And then there’s the claims. Currently VA has a backlog of claims it’s not as large as it used to be. But that’s expected to grow and in order to handle the new influx of claims. VA has been hiring like crazy this past probably six months, trying to really ramp up efforts to make sure that they can handle the new claims as well as automating instituting some new computer systems so they can automate some of the claims.

Rebecca Kheel

In my short career covering Congress. The end of that bill, with the cloture vote and everything was one of the kind of wild as roller coasters I’ve seen, at least in the Defense and Veterans be it. Meanwhile, another somewhat surprising news The Pentagon has announced its pick for a new top spokesman. The role has been empty since John Kirby left to run communications at the National Security Council in late May. Now the Pentagon announced last week that his replacement is going to be an Air Force One star drew why does it matter that the new top spokesman is in uniform?

Drew Lawrence

Right so the new spokesperson his his name’s Brigadier General Patrick S. Ryder, and he’s actually the second uniform spokesperson for that has held a position in the positions history. In, you know, the the position in and of itself is is essentially a political one It answers to the administration and often, the answers that the Department of Defense gives to reporters can hold political weight military personnel often bristle at making statements while in uniform that holds political weight. So Rebecca, I want to talk to you a little bit about a story that happened a couple of weeks ago, and President Biden had announced that the CIA successfully assassinated an al Qaeda leader named Ayman al Zawahiri, he had taken over for Osama bin Laden once once he was killed, and was a priority target for the United States for a long time. Can you can you tell us a little bit about the significance of this assassination. And you know, what it means to our broader counterintelligence program?

Rebecca Kheel

Well, that we’re hearing might not be as big a name as Osama bin Laden. But his killing was definitely a big deal, both for what it means, you know, for the survivors and family members of victims of terrorist attacks, but also for what it means for the US counterterrorism strategy going forward. This strike happened about 11 months after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. As of this recording, we’re a couple weeks away from the one year anniversary of it. And it was the first strike that we’ve conducted inside of Afghanistan, since the withdrawal. And when we were in the middle of that withdrawal bind administration officials, military officials kept saying that just because we’re leaving Afghanistan doesn’t mean we’re going to take our eye off the counterterrorism ball. And they detailed this sort of vague quote over the horizon strategy, where we would be conducting strikes inside of Afghanistan using forces based outside of Afghanistan. But there was a lot of skepticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that that would be effective. And up until now, there’s been no evidence to show that we would actually do that. Now this strike was supposedly recare carried out by the CIA. But it is still significant that it is the first strike we’ve done outside of since we withdrew from Afghanistan.

Drew Lawrence

But I do I do want to turn Rebecca to a great instance of reporting that happened in our newsroom with Steve Beynon, and he was doing a profile on the Sergeant Major of the Army, Michael Grinston. And something happened during that interview that I thought was that was pretty great. Can you tell us a little bit what happened in in actually what the result of that instance was?

Rebecca Kheel

Yeah, well, first of all, you’re right. The profile that Steve wrote was excellent. And I do recommend all our listeners go out and read that. But in the process of reporting on this profile of Sergeant Major the Army, Michael Grintson, Steve went with him to Fort Bragg. And while he was there, grimston conducted an inspection of the barracks. And these barracks were already known to have some mold issues, which as we talked about, on our last episode is an ongoing problem across the entire military. But during this inspection, apparently grimston and Steve also found that there was a massive hole in the wall with exposed pipes. So grimston ordered, almost everyone out of the room apparently gave a dressing down to some of the leadership at the base. And then it came out a couple of days later that 1200 Soldiers from Fort Bragg are going to have to be relocated, because the barracks failed to meet livable conditions. There are still some questions, I believe, as of this recording as to where they’re gonna go and all that. But a good example of some watchdog reporting there.

Drew Lawrence

I know, almost, almost literally, he was there, watching all of this go down. And he did a really great job of, of profiling that instance, in the, as you said, the dressing down that had happened afterwards.

Rebecca Kheel

Patricia, you wrote recently about a letter that the former secretaries of the VA wrote to Congress about something called National Warrior Call Day. What’s National Warrior Call Day all about and why are the VA secretaries pushing this?

Patricia Kime

So it’s an effort by nonprofits, several nonprofits trying to push for push to designate the Sunday after Veterans Day, as a day for people to pick up the phone and reach out call a veteran and go visit a veteran, go, you know, see a veteran in an effort to address reduce suicides, raise awareness for suicide prevention, the theory between before the theory Hi, national warrior Cole day is that isolation is dangerous and can be harmful. And, you know, a lot of veterans if they’re suffering from mental health conditions disorders tend to self isolate and this could lead to loneliness. More mental health issues, and and possibly, you know suicidal ideations.

Drew Lawrence

Patricia, that’s pretty significant to me, at least with the VA secretary’s writing, is this is this a common thing for them to write to Congress? Have they done this before?

Patricia Kime

And you know that I can’t think of any other instance except last year when they actually did the same thing calling for a warrior call day, they were able to get a amendment attached to the National Defense Authorization Act on the House side last year, but that was actually stripped from the bill during conference with the Senate. So it never went into effect this year. They’re pitching the Senate in an effort to get a resolution and just have it at least pass as a resolution if not part of the defense bill. But, but it is unique to see all seven of them their signatures on one page, you know, going back to the fourth VA Secretary.

Rebecca Kheel

Well, thank you so much, Patricia, and thank you so much to all our listeners for tuning in. Remember to come back in a couple of weeks where we will once again, tell you all the latest news from around the military.

Drew Lawrence

Awesome. Thanks so much. Thank you so much for tuning in to episode three of Firewatch. I want to thank our executive producers Zack Fryer Biggs and Amy Bushatz. And if you enjoyed this podcast and want to see more of our work, head over to military.com. And if you want to reach out and say hi, send us an email at podcast@military.com Thanks for listening

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