A Texas jury has awarded $2.49 million to an Army reservist who lost his job as a Texas state trooper when he developed a debilitating illness caused by exposure to burn pits while serving overseas.
Former Army Capt. Le Roy Torres, who together with his wife Rosie led a decade-long fight for recognition of burn pits as a health risk and landmark legislation to provide benefits for sickened veterans, won a lawsuit Friday against the state of Texas for violations of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act.
Torres first filed a lawsuit in 2017 charging that the state denied his request to remain on the force in an administrative capacity -- an accommodation for his service-related disability. Instead, he said, he was forced to retire and then denied a disability retirement pension from the state.
The Texas Department of Public Safety argued that it couldn't be sued in the case without giving consent to being sued -- permission that is granted only by the state legislature.
The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Torres, sending the case back to Texas.
In a statement to Military.com on Monday, Torres described his fight over his job as "grueling" and said he felt vindicated by the ruling.
"As citizen soldiers, we deserve to keep our professions when we return from serving our nation such as a deployment, subsequently accommodating the injured veteran if they return with certain limitations," Torres said.
"We should not have to bear the burden alone due to illnesses or injuries caused by the instrumentality of war," he added.
The six-person jury ruled unanimously in Torres' favor.
"After Dec. 16, 2011 ... no one from the Department of Public Safety contacted Le Roy to tell him what was going on and there was no evidence at all (literally none) that DPS looked for another position for him to fill, despite their lawful, affirmative duty to do so," said Torres' attorney, Brian Lawler of San Diego-based Pilot Law, in a statement to Military.com.
The Texas Department of Public Safety did not respond to a request for comment by publication.
Torres deployed in 2007 to Iraq, where he was assigned to Joint Base Balad, site of one of the largest burn pits used by U.S. forces to dispose of waste generated by the facility, from everyday trash to medical waste, electronics, batteries, plastics and more.
Torres developed constrictive bronchiolitis, a condition that destroys the smallest airways in the lungs, causing difficulties breathing and leaving those affected exhausted. He later was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and an autoimmune disorder.
As a result of his health conditions, which weren't recognized by the Department of Veterans Affairs as service-related, the Torreses founded Burn Pits 360, an advocacy group focused on raising awareness of the dangers of burn pits and veterans sickened by them.
In the early days of their organization, the Torreses traveled to Washington, D.C., often joined by just a handful of other veterans with illnesses they believed were caused by burn pit exposure. As more veterans became sick, however, Burn Pits 360 began documenting their illnesses and pushing for health care and benefits for those former service members.
Their fight caught the attention of comedian Jon Stewart and construction worker-turned-activist John Feal, who had successfully pushed for extension of benefits for first responders and their families at the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, many of whom were exposed to and sickened by many of the same chemicals emitted by burn pits.
Presenting a united front together with many veterans service organizations, the burn pit advocates were able to pass the PACT Act, also known as the Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act.
More than 1 million disability claims have been filed under the PACT Act since it was signed in August 2022. The legislation designated nearly two dozen illnesses as presumed to be related to exposure to burn pits and other battlefield environmental pollutants, making those afflicted with the illnesses eligible for expedited health care and disability benefits.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.