Rosie Torres of Robstown, Texas, is no Washington lobbyist, but she’s been making the long trek to Capitol Hill for some 13 years, knocking year after year on lawmakers’ doors. Her mission: Alert them — convince them — that something awful has been happening to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as a result of constant exposure to toxic military burn pits.
Torres’ husband, Le Roy, suffers from constrictive bronchitis, a respiratory condition that narrowed his airways and made breathing difficult. Rosie is sure it’s from his exposure to burn pits on his base in Iraq. But last week, even with the Senate just hours away from boosting health and disability benefits for veterans like her husband, she still wasn’t sure she had won over lawmakers, despite earlier votes indicating the bill was on the right track.
“It was still too good to be true,” Torres said. “Even when my senators voted, I said, ‘Something is up.’”
Torres was among the veterans and family members camped out at the Capitol last week, refusing to leave until the Senate passed the bill by a final vote of 86-11. That vote, lopsided at the last, was a momentous victory for a movement that has been years in the making but gained serious traction only during the current Congress.
President Joe Biden is scheduled to sign the bill into law on Wednesday.
The White House ceremony culminates an effort that began with the vets themselves and their harrowing stories, eventually amplified for public attention by comedian-activist Jon Stewart and personally embraced by the president, who has voiced his suspicion that burn pits led to his elder son’s death.
In the end, the bill received unanimous support from Democrats and a majority of Republicans despite its hefty price tag, estimated at roughly $280 billion over 10 years.
‘Let’s full-throttle and get this going’
Another Texan, former Marine Tim Jensen, who served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, was also part of the gathering outside the Capitol last week. He said he lost his best friend, Sgt. Frank Hazelwood, to lung cancer, and two other battalion colleagues to illnesses he attributes to serving near burn pits.
“They were all cancers of the brain and the lungs, and these were not cancers typical of that age group,” Jensen said.
He got actively involved some four years ago after a phone call with Torres, who had started an advocacy organization with her husband — Burn Pits 360. The organization serves as a clearinghouse for grim stories related by veterans and their families about the impact they believe burn pits have had on their lives.
What are these burn pits? Big, smelly and nothing anyone would want to breathe, they were commonly used by the military until several years ago to dispose of such things as chemicals, tires, plastics and medical and human waste.
Former Marine Jensen said a pivotal moment in the quest for federal help occurred when Stewart joined the effort, bringing the publicity that comes with celebrity attention.
“Rosie Torres and Burn Pits 360 have been working on this for over 10 years and they were getting very little traction,” Jensen said. “They needed some bigger push, right, to get it into a national conversation.”
Then the White House invited Danielle Robinson, the widow of Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson of Ohio, to attend Biden’s State of the Union address in March. During the address, Biden raised the possibility that being near burn pits led to the death of his son Beau.
“We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops,” Biden said in the speech. “But I’m committed to finding out everything we can.”
Jensen said, “That’s when we knew we now have the attention and let’s full-throttle and get this thing going.”
“That certainly energized Democrats in the Senate and the House to move,” said Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
On the House side, Rep. Mark Takano, chairman of that chamber’s Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, announced in early 2021 that helping veterans who experienced toxic exposure would be one of the panel’s priorities for the coming Congress. That was not long after Biden had taken the oath of office.
Takano, a California Democrat, recalled on the House floor last month how he briefed the president. He said Biden leaned over and started talking about Beau, who died from brain cancer at age 46. He had served in Iraq for about a year in 2008 and 2009.
“It was during that meeting when I knew I had a partner in President Biden,” Takano said.
The congressman was intent on avoiding a piecemeal approach. He didn’t want the legislation to pit vets from one war against those of another in a fight for limited Department of Veterans Affairs resources.
The bill not only expands health and disability benefits for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans but contains provisions to aid more Vietnam-era vets exposed to Agent Orange. It also provides support to veterans exposed to water contamination at North Carolina’s Camp LeJeune and to radiation in Palomares, Spain, site of one of the largest nuclear disasters in history, and Enewetak Atoll of the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. conducted numerous nuclear tests.
The House passed the first iteration of the bill in March. The vote was 256-174 with most Republicans opposing. They cited costs and the strain it would cause on a VA already struggling to meet current workloads.
‘Do your duty and pass this’
A few weeks after the House vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., joined Stewart, veterans advocates and Danielle Robinson for a news conference in which she described what it was like being with her husband, for whom the bill is named, in his final moments as he died from lung cancer.
“I ask you to do your duty and pass this,” she implored.
Schumer promised the bill would get a vote in the Senate. “Everyone is going to have to show where they stand, and whose side they are on,” he said.
The Senate was at work on its own version of the bill. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the veterans groups were clear that the bill was the panel’s No. 1 priority.
Tester had cooperative partners in Moran and Republican John Boozman of Arkansas, with their discussions focused on making sure the VA would be ready for the workload.
“We were talking with the VA. ... Are we setting you up for failure? Is this something you can deliver on?” Tester said. “And they assured us they could. There were a few changes we had to make and we made them.”
Those changes included staggering the start for some of the benefit enhancements and providing more flexibility for hiring staff. The changes also helped trim tens of billions of dollars in spending from the House version, giving more Republicans reason to support the final product once it went back to the House.
The slightly trimmed bill ended up passing both chambers with significant bipartisan support. But then lawmakers discovered it contained a revenue-related provision that had to originate in the House, requiring a do-over for a technical fix.
That’s normally a formality, but the do-over was complicated when Republicans unexpectedly blocked the burn pits bill from advancing last month. That was shortly after Schumer announced he had reached agreement with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on a party-line health and climate package paid for in part with higher taxes on corporations. Republicans were angry about that. Veterans were angry, too, that their burn pits bill was blocked, some felt, in retaliation.
Many would spend the next days camped out at the Capitol, taking shifts in Washington’s oppressive humidity and thunderstorms. They got a celebratory ending last week when the Senate passed the measure after giving Republicans a chance to vote on amendments, all defeated.
Moran said the vote reaffirmed to him the Senate could work.
“I’ve never worked or been a United States senator when the Senate functioned well. I missed the days in which that was the case,” he said. “It’s a pleasing circumstance that every so often there are issues and people that come together.”