Supreme Court hears an Army reservist’s case involving exposure to burn pits in Iraq

The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case that questions whether sweeping legal immunity for states trumps guarantees for America’s veterans. John Yang introduces us to a Texan who served his country, and now finds himself in a legal battle for his old job.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case that questions whether sweeping legal immunity for states trumps guarantees for America's military veterans.

    John Yang introduces us to a Texan who served his country and now finds himself in a legal battle for his old job.

    And a warning to our viewers: This piece discusses suicide.

    Le Roy Torres, Co-Founder, Burn Pits 360: I'm not alone in this, in this battle.

  • John Yang:

    Le Roy Torres has a constant companion, a medical device that pumps concentrated oxygen into his damaged lungs.

  • Le Roy Torres:

    It's something that I struggle with, because I don't want to be hooked up to this machine. There was no reason that I had to, you know?

    And that's another battle that I deal in mentally. It's a mental battle. But here, lately, it's been the best thing that I can do to help me.

  • John Yang:

    It's as much a badge of his service to his country as a decoration or a battle scar. As he fights through a migraine and what he calls brain fog, he describes a Southeast Texas boy's dream come true.

  • Le Roy Torres:

    I had already made a decision at a young age that, when I grew up, I wanted to join the Army and also be in the state police.

  • John Yang:

    In 2007, he swapped his state trooper's uniform for Army fatigues and deployed to Iraq as a second lieutenant in the Reserves. On his first day on the U.S. base in Balad, he noticed something in the air.

  • Le Roy Torres:

    When I arrived there, it was a Sunday afternoon. And I remember stepping off the shuttle. And the first — the question, what is that stench in the air? It smelled like burning rubber.

  • Man:

    I smell the burn pit down here.

  • John Yang:

    It was the noxious fumes from burn pits that were used on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of everything from plastic water bottles and batteries to tires, electronic equipment and paint cans. Jet fuel was sometimes used as an accelerant.

    Was there ever a time when you were on base that you didn't smell that smell or see the smoke?

  • Le Roy Torres:

    Not a time. Every day. Smelt it every day.

  • John Yang:

    Did it worry you?

  • Le Roy Torres:

    Yes, a lot.

  • John Yang:

    When Torres was honorably discharged in 2008, he was among the hundreds of thousands of service members who returned home with severe health problems believed linked to exposure to burn pits, leaving them with mounting medical bills and battles over veterans' benefits.

    Rosie Torres, Co-Founder, Burn Pits 360: This is the war that followed us home, is what we have we have sort of labeled it.

  • John Yang:

    Rosie Torres is Le Roy's wife.

  • Rosie Torres:

    It's the debilitating conditions that I have seen just plague his body, and him cry over things that we just didn't have answers for. And that's heart-wrenching.

  • John Yang:

    And when he tried to return to his state police job, a right that federal law guarantees returning Reservists and Guard members, Torres says his nightmare compounded.

    He says he asked for accommodations for his medical condition. Torres and the Texas Department of Public Safety disagree about what happened next, but Torres left the force in 2012.

  • Rosie Torres:

    You should be honored to have these veterans as your employees, right, because, I mean, they went to defend our nation. And who's going to come back and want to feel as if they're disposable?

    Like, no state agency and no employer, I don't care if you are private, state, should get away with that, period.

  • Le Roy Torres:

    I remember where this pit was at.

  • John Yang:

    Torres wants to sue Texas, but the state argues it cannot be sued without its consent, a longstanding legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity.

    Today, an attorney for the Biden administration told the Supreme Court that blocking Torres' ability to sue jeopardizes national defense.

    Christopher G. Michel, Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General: The Constitution was adopted in large part to stop states from undermining federal efforts to raise a military. This court has never imposed a state-sovereignty-based limitation on the federal powers to raise and support armies or provide and maintain a navy.

  • John Yang:

    But the Texas solicitor general argued, that's not what the writers of the Constitution meant.

  • Judd Stone, Texas Solicitor General:

    There is no evidence that the founding generation saw the power to expose states to private lawsuits as inextricably intertwined with warfare or that the states intended to be sued without their consent by giving Congress the power to raise an army.

    Marcia Coyle, "The National Law Journal": This is not the kind of case that will break down along ideological lines, judging by…

  • John Yang:

    Marcia Coyle is chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal."

  • Marcia Coyle:

    The justices are going to be looking at the history, the structure, the text of the Constitution. What were the founders and framers worried about when they were drafting this?

    I thought, at first, that Mr. Torres' lawyer was getting the more skeptical questions. But then, when Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone stood up, the justices weren't quite convinced by his arguments.

  • Jon Stewart, Comedian/Activist:

    I met you guys about three years ago.

    Le Roy, can you describe your experience?

  • John Yang:

    Le Roy and Rosie Torres are prominent advocates for veterans exposed to burn pits. In 2009, they created a nonprofit called Burn Pits 360 to press for VA benefits.

    But Torres almost didn't get to see this day in court. The mental anguish of losing his job and the physical pain of his medical ailments overwhelmed him.

  • Le Roy Torres:

    I was struggling. I was struggling that night. And my plan was to end my life that night. And it was very — I didn't want to be a burden anymore. I felt like I was a burden to my wife.

  • John Yang:

    His wife and service dog, named Hope, intervened just in time. Torres says he emerged from those dark days by finding new purpose.

  • Le Roy Torres:

    This is an opportunity, that I believe it's a God-given opportunity that he's given us, because it's not just about me, but it'll be about thousands of others that will benefit from this, that they will have that right again.

  • John Yang:

    Now he waits to hear if the justices of the Supreme Court will give him the chance for a state court to hear his suit, an answer that's expected to come by this summer.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Robstown, Texas.

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