Supreme Court upholds suit by Iraq War veteran in sickened by burn pits

Supreme Court upholds suit by Iraq War veteran in  sickened by burn pits Supreme Court upholds suit by Iraq War veteran in  sickened by burn pits
Sgt. Richard Ganske, 84th Combat Engineer Battalion uses a bulldozer to maneuver refuse into the burn pit in Iraq in 2004. (Courtesy Photo) Sig... Supreme Court upholds suit by Iraq War veteran in  sickened by burn pits

Sgt. Richard Ganske, 84th Combat Engineer Battalion uses a bulldozer to maneuver refuse into the burn pit in Iraq in 2004. (Courtesy Photo)

Sig Christenson

San Antonio Express-News

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of retired Army Capt. Le Roy Torres, an Iraq veteran who left his job as a Texas state trooper after his bosses refused to provide accommodations for a respiratory condition he blamed on burn pits during his service.

Torres said his illness resulted from repeated exposure to toxic smoke from burn pits while a reservist at Balad Air Base, 40 miles north of Baghdad. He resigned from the Texas Department of Public Safety and sued under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994.

Congress passed the law, called USERRA, to protect troops from being fired or losing benefits — such as vacation time — when they miss work for training exercises and deployments. It requires employers to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the disabilities of veterans.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling makes clear that disabled veterans can pursue legal action against state employers who fail to provide the reasonable accommodations guaranteed by federal law,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D- San Antonio, said in a statement, calling it “a victory for all veterans” but adding that “it should not take a years-long legal battle to compel the government of Texas to respect their service and sacrifice.”

In its decision, the high court held that “by ratifying the Constitution, the states agreed their sovereignty would yield to the national power to raise and support the armed forces. Congress may exercise this power to authorize private damages suits against nonconsenting states, as in USERRA.”

Torres, who retired to Robstown when he left the DPS, could not immediately be reached for comment. In earlier interviews, he said he was pressured to resign after developing the lung illness while working near a 10-acre burn pit at Balad. The pit, he said, burned everything from plastic bottles and batteries to body parts.

Veterans and service members can return to their old civilian jobs under the law, retaining the seniority and salary they would have had if they had been continuously employed, and it allows suits against civilian employers, which include state and local governments, if the employer discriminates based on their military service.

Torres and his wife, Rosie, are well known among veterans for creating Burn Pits 360, which lobbies for those who suffer ailments linked to burn pit exposure. Their registry now lists more than 10,000 veterans, including some who have died.

“For nearly a decade, Captain Le Roy Torres and his wife Rosie have been fighting to protect the rights of disabled servicemembers to return to civilian life,” said Castro, who led an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case supporting Torres. “Today, their strength and persistence have changed the course of history.”

sigc@express-news.net

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