MS. HICKS: Thanks. Thank you so much. Pleasure to be with you.
MR. DUFFY: I want to say a word about what it means to be deputy secretary of Defense. It sounds like just another title. It’s not. It’s the number-two job at the Pentagon. It is an unimaginably complicated task that involves supplying, maintaining, and planning the largest military in the world. It is generally thought of as the job that the person who holds it runs the building and manages the services.
Secretary Hicks is the first woman to have this job. Again, thank you for joining us.
MS. HICKS: Yeah, pleasure to be here.
MR. DUFFY: Remember, we always want to hear from you, our audience. You can share questions for our guests and thoughts by tweeting @PostLive.
Before we talk about health, I just wanted to get in a question or two about the situation in Ukraine. Deputy Secretary Hicks, we saw over the weekend
that the–there were renewed airstrikes by Russia on Ukraine. President Zelensky of Ukraine said he can–we can expect more of the same, his people can expect more of the same. Do you attach some military significance to this latest round of attacks?
MS. HICKS: You know, I think the overriding
viewpoint here should be that the Russians are clearly undertaking every brutal tactic that they’ve shown, they’ve displayed elsewhere, whether it was in Grozny, Chechnya, whether it was in Syria, and now we’re seeing it in Ukraine, really unimaginable pain on the civilian population. That’s what I would put as–more than military significance around these attacks. It shows a level of concern and desperation, I think from the Russians that the Ukrainian will and capability is strong. And I think that is in fact the case, and that the United States and its allies and partners who are supporting Ukraine and standing up for the sovereignty of Ukraine are having a demonstrated effect, and that’s what the Russians are challenged by.
MR. DUFFY: Does this latest round of attacks or threatened attacks, is that leading the United States to take any new steps to help Ukraine through this, this new chapter?
MS. HICKS: Well, we are certainly focused on providing Ukraine what it needs both in the civilian side, outside of the Department of Defense’s responsibility, largely, but we have plenty of economic assistance, energy support, to this very point. And then also, we continue on the security side, the Defense Department, among other agencies, making sure that we can provide the
ammunition, material support. But that also includes things like uniforms, warm weather–cold weather gear, if you will, power generation. We’ve just provided more generators, for instance, to Ukraine. That continues apace.
MR. DUFFY: One last question–one last question about Ukraine. You know, the U.S. has provided about $18 billion in security support for Kyiv and drawn fairly deep into our own stockpiles, particularly on munitions. Do you have any sense yet of how long it will take to replenish those supplies? Is that something you’ve looked at yet?
MS. HICKS: Well, let me assure you, we look at that every day, and we’re very confident in the quality of the American defense industrial base. We’re working very closely with our partners here on the industry side, but also, of course, again, our allies and partners around the world where they have industrial base capability. So, we are very confident of the readiness of our forces. But we will be spending, as you have said, the $18 billion, that we’re expending funds not only in support of Ukraine, but to backfill our own stocks, and also looking ahead to the needs of allies and partners who may want to purchase capabilities from the United States. So, we’re very fortunate here in the United States to have built up a defense industrial base over time, and we’re really needing that now. And we’re going to undertake and have already put in with some of the dollars that you’ve mentioned significant improvements for our defense industrial base that will benefit not just this crisis and the Ukrainian people but will benefit the United States in future crises as well.
MR. DUFFY: All right, thank you for that.
Secretary Hicks, let’s go on to talk about the health concerns of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who you are responsible for. The Pentagon, I know, is making efforts to safeguard the health concerns of those folks. What are the biggest challenges, as you look ahead, that you face as you support particularly the mental health of the people who wear uniforms for us?
MS. HICKS: Well, first, let me thank you for doing this event. It’s such an incredibly important topic for us. We’ve been fortunate to see a decline in suicides from 2020 to 2021 in the force, about 15 percent decline. But there’s so much more work to do, and we will not be satisfied as long as there is a single suicide remaining in the force. And that includes the family members of the force.
And I do want to say right off the top, if there’s anyone who’s listening to this watching this today, who is having thoughts of suicide or just wants to talk to somebody in confidentiality, please call 988, press the number one that’s 988, press the number one, and there will be someone there to talk to you, again, in confidence.
There are really three priorities that we place here at the Defense Department on how we will improve our support for our family members and for our service members as it relates to their mental health. Taking care of people’s right at the center at the heart of what we do here and very focused at the leadership level, and that really takes three forms around suicide prevention.
The first is making sure we’re fostering a healthy environment. That may sound very straightforward, but it takes a whole suite of capabilities, many people across the whole department to pull that together. And here we’re thinking really about a public health approach, a community-based approach to how we drive healthier culture and climate. That makes a huge difference, we believe, in preventing the kinds of harmful behaviors that lead to suicide. So, whether it’s making sure our service
members have the skills they need for, let’s say, financial, health, and stability, food security, relationship management, obviously sexual assault, sexual harassment prevention, and then again, any kind of counseling that they may need or be seeking, that’s what we want to do in fostering a healthy environment. So that’s the first line of effort.
And as I go back later in the questions and answer, I’m happy to give you some examples of the things that we’re doing.
The second major line of effort that it really has us galvanized is making sure we remove any stigma from a seeking mental health assistance or any help that’s needed in these areas that I’ve just mentioned. Again, that could be about seeking help for your financial stability, relationship management, all the way up to suicidal ideation. And so we have a number of initiatives underway now to make sure we remove that stigma–not just that it’s not–that it’s not bad to seek help, if you will, for your behaviors, for your–for your mental health, but really, that it’s a sign of strength.
And then the third area is lethal means safety. We have a very strong correlation in the military, about 70 percent, between the use of a firearm and suicide. And with our family members, it’s a majority, not quite as high as 70 percent, but a majority of those suicides. So, we know and it’s well documented that if we can create a little time and space between that ideation, that idea of having concerns about, you know, potentially committing suicide and those lethal means, obviously, firearms being foremost, but also medications, if we can create that time and space, create some safety, that that reduces the likelihood of suicide. So those are our three main lines of effort.
MR. DUFFY: When you talk about lowering the stigma, how do you mitigate that, especially to large groups of people?
MS. HICKS: I think one of the biggest challenges we faced in the national security community is fighting the assumption that seeking mental health care will create challenges for your security clearance process. And so I put out a memo earlier this year in May of this year, bold face clearly stating that seeking mental health or any kind of assistance is in no way a challenge or will not create any challenges for receiving a security clearance here at the Department of Defense. And I received responses from that from folks third hand saying how important it was for them to hear that at a high level.
And we were able to support that with data to demonstrate that, in fact, it’s extraordinarily rare for someone to have that even factor into a set of–a set of factors that might lead to a security clearance denial.
The second thing we’ve done is looked across all of our issuances, which sounds terrible, but here at the Department of Defense, everything we do is codified in a policy like any large organization, policy, a regulation, an instruction. And I put out guidance earlier this month, November, to make sure that we scour through all of those documents and remove language that stigmatizes. So for instance, talking about substance abuse or–as opposed to language that is more neutral, or mental health, or instability or mental institutions, language like this that was very normal, if you will, in those issuances maybe 20 years ago, but are not reflective of where the behavioral health community is today and how we speak about those who are seeking care, and then the type of care they’re seeking.
So those are a few examples. We have a number of initiatives, again, across the department that are about reaching small groups of people, training them, talking to them close up again, for families and spouses as well as service members to really lower those barriers. And we have found through those pilot projects and places where we’re doing this really good pickup in lowering those barriers to people undertaking help.
MR. DUFFY: One of the things the Pentagon has done, I understand, in the last couple of years is they’ve deployed or assigned, assigned and deployed some 2,000 military personnel around the world in a kind of almost a suicide I don’t want to say task force, but it is–they–certainly that’s their mission, to try to–have I got that right? And how does that work?
MS. HICKS: Sure. So that’s really part of that first line of effort of fostering healthy climates. And
We–what we have is what we call a prevention workforce, and this is about that community-based approach, that public health approach to the family of behaviors that we want to make sure those self-harm and harm behaviors that we want to reduce. So, yes, we have worked across a bipartisan coalition in Congress to support the department, having a prevention workforce that will ultimately be about 2,000 people. We have right now as we speak several hundred openings available. And so you just go to usajobs.com–or .gov, excuse me, and you search for prevention, and you will see openings all across our force, which means all across the world, for those clinicians, mental healthcare professionals, a wide range of specialties that we will bring to bear to try to look at how we support our commanders who are ultimately responsible for their people, and giving them the tools they need to help them. Again, that could be on financial stability, it could be on food security, it could be on relationship issues, all the factors that go into causing stress and harm behaviors, including, excuse me, suicide.
So, we are quite confident that’s a very science-based approach that we’re using. It’s the largest effort like it–like this that has ever existed, at an unprecedented scale. So, beyond anything, if you will, a university has done or a state has done, this prevention workforce will be a first of its kind, and we’re going to do it right here in the United States military, because that’s what we owe our people and their families.
MR. DUFFY: I wonder whether you could talk for a second about whether these issues become more acute or more challenging or just different as people who’ve spent a tour or a couple of tours in uniform begin to transition out and back to civilian life. Is that a complicated nexus?
MS. HICKS: Life transitions are always stressors, and we definitely think about that period really about a year before someone leaves the force to a year after someone leaves the force as a period where we really want to make sure we’re stabilizing them. And suicide prevention is clearly one of those reasons. So, we’ve undertaken some initiatives to give–first of all, start that transition process early, as I said, like about a year beforehand or so, making sure that our servicemembers understand the resources that they will have after they leave.
And then we partner very closely with the VA. So, we have a joint committee that we work with VA through to manage all of our programs. And one of those examples is this year, after our servicemembers leave, they still have access to all those same resources that I’ve just described to you, which are captured in a web-based platform called Military OneSource. So, we’ve extended Military OneSource to all of those tools and resources for a year after service so our servicemembers still have the support of DOD at the same time they’re beginning to receive all that support from VA. So, we think that sort of two-year approach and then partnering closely with VA to make sure there’s a smooth transition is really important to our suicide prevention efforts.
MR. DUFFY: I believe you grew up in a military family. Am I correct?
MS. HICKS: I did. I grew up with not just my parents being in the military, but several of my siblings being in the military, so very used to military life.
MR. DUFFY: And can you talk a little bit about how that informs your work in this area?
MS. HICKS: Absolutely. So, in addition to having many military members in my family, I also grew up with a tradition of a mother who’s a clinical psychologist, worked in the family services centers, throughout her time as a military spouse and still to this day talks and texts to me on issues related to family support and family matters. That very much informs both why I choose this kind of work, but then how I implement it, and in particular in this series of issues understanding the importance of supporting the families, supporting the servicemembers, and all those pieces that go outside of when they leave, when they’re off duty and leave the job, what it takes to make sure they understand that they are treasured by the American people, and that we’re here to support them at the Department of Defense.
MR. DUFFY: I was going to ask one other thing about the Pentagon’s plans going forward. You mentioned some of the things you are doing. I know Secretary Austin has instituted a broad tasking to look at what else needs to be done. Can you tell us anything else about what might still be coming in this area?
MS. HICKS: Sure. As I said, we are pleased with the drop in suicides, but we will not be satisfied until there are no more suicides. And we know there’s a lot more work to be done. Getting that prevention workforce onboard–hired, on boarded, trained, and deployed out into the field, that I think is at the top of the list.
The secretary, Secretary Austin also created an independent review commission for suicide prevention. That commission is going–which is made up of clinicians, doctors, former servicemembers, current servicemembers–that group will report into the secretary by the end of this year with some initial thoughts and then a public report we hope early in the next year. So, we’re looking at what they might bring forward, areas we might not have thought about that might make an impact as well.
And then I would just say I’ve mentioned several piloted efforts, small programs. We want to really scale a lot of those programs across the force there. It’s–we’re a large organization, there are pockets of innovation every day working on this issue. I lead something called the Deputy’s Workforce Council, which is a senior forum where we can bring in those pockets of innovation, hear what’s working, and then scale that across the force. And that brings us much more quickly and more efficiently and effectively to solutions.
MR. DUFFY: I want to ask, we only have about 15 seconds left, and this is a hard one to answer quickly, but I know you’ve been in the building for the better part of a generation, and a lot has changed since 1992 or 1993.
But this conversation would have been difficult to imagine,
Say, at the end of the–at the beginning of the Clinton presidency or the end, I mean, 35–30 years ago. Would you agree?
MS. HICKS: I think we’ve always understood that military life places stressors on individuals, and that suicide was a concern. But it is absolutely the case, just like the rest of society, that suicide has taken on a much more significant role across society. And our approach to mental health more generally as a society has really matured and grown. And you’re right; we in the Defense Department have kind of ridden alongside that, and I think we’re–I come here in this job at a time when there’s real opportunity to confront head on what are some of the stereotypes, some of the myths around suicide or around mental health behavioral assistance. And we have an opportunity here that we want to seize, and the secretary is very focused on that now.
MR. DUFFY: We’re going to have to leave it right there. Thank you very much, Deputy Secretary Hicks. It’s been great to have you, and thanks for talking about this today.
MS. HICKS: Great, thank you.
MR. DUFFY: And I’ll be back in a minute to talk to the woman who’s helping veterans exposed to burn pits.
MS. KOCH: Hi, I’m Kathleen Koch. Nearly 1.4 million men and women serve in the U.S. military today. Of course, their physical and their mental health has a huge impact on their ability to do their jobs to defend our country. Here to talk with us today about the importance of quality care for our servicemembers and their families is Dr. Andrew Satin. He is professor and director of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, and he is also a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and the recipient of numerous military service and achievement medals. Welcome Dr. Satin.
DR. SATIN: Thank you, Kathleen. Great to be with you today.
MS. KOCH: Dr. Satin, you have been providing healthcare to the military community for almost 40 years. And as I mentioned, you are a veteran yourself. So, what insight does that give you, and what do you see as some of the primary medical needs of our servicemembers today?
DR. SATIN: Well, Kathleen, I’ve had the honor and privilege of really only working for two organizations in my professional life, but I’m amazed how similar they
really are. Those two organizations, Department of Defense, my time in the U.S. Air Force, and for the last 15 years Johns Hopkins Medicine. And the values that were instilled in me and in the service still ring true at Hopkins, which is, you know, service before self and integrity and excellence in all we do. And I think a lot of the values of the service are shared by many of the healthcare professionals here at Hopkins in our medical organization.
MS. KOCH: People may not really realize that some nearly 16 percent of active duty military are women, and that actually includes one of my nieces. So, you are an OBGYN. Talk to us about women’s health services, and what in that area, if anything, is unique to the military and their families?
DR. SATIN: So I think one of the facts that really isn’t widely known outside of military circles is outside of theater of combat, the most common reason to get admitted to a military treatment facility is admission for labor and delivery. And when–and when you think about it, it makes sense, particularly among the active duty force, which is roughly ages 18 to 40 and involves men and women and their families. It’s a lot of family care, including having children, providing care for children, providing reproductive health services, contraception, fertility services, and preventative care to prevent diseases that are common in younger folks.
MS. KOCH: What other medical services do you think are essential for military families?
DR. SATIN: Well, one of the things that has gotten a lot of focus is military lifestyle adds many stresses that perhaps don’t show in civilian life–
separation, military sexual trauma is another one. It’s family care. It’s retiree care. The government has an obligation to take care of our folks who’ve served our country and make sure that they get the medical care that they need and deserve. And we’re very glad that at Johns Hopkins, we can help collaborate and ensure that those services are given in areas where the military can’t meet those needs.
MS. KOCH: So, you’re saying mental healthcare is very important, too.
DR. SATIN: Of course, it is. Mental Health has gotten the attention it deserves lately, both in the civilian and military community. But in the military community, there are unique aspects. And those have to do with family separations, deployments, spouses or mothers and fathers not being near their children. And then, you know, the hidden mental health issues that people bring back from deployments.
MS. KOCH: I know it’s–anyone who has military members in their family, I think, has seen it and they know how tough it is. What other resources exist to help military families regarding their healthcare of both active duty and retired?
DR. SATIN: So one of the things we’re really proud about at Johns Hopkins is our U.S. family health plan. One of the challenges for the services has been a combination of consolidation of facilities and downsizing.
The medical corps in the military, the nursing corps, and the medical services in general are much smaller than when I served. And they’re at a situation now due to capacity issues where they can’t always offer the full breadth and depth of services as they used to. And that’s where Johns Hopkins has really enjoyed a collaborative relationship with the–with the military through our U.S. family health plan here in the National Capital Region, and can provide services for active duty families, for retirees in the breadth and depth of healthcare that Johns Hopkins has been–come to be able to deliver to many of our beneficiaries across the system, including primary care, and even tertiary and quaternary care facilities.
MS. KOCH: How did that, you know, shrinkage of available military medical care happen? Was that downsizing, consolidation? The pandemic have anything to do with it?
DR. SATIN: Yeah, yes, Kathleen. I think it’s multifactorial. Certainly, in my early days in the service, when I think back to Bethesda and Walter Reed were separate hospitals, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and Walter Reed, they were several hundred bed hospitals, and consolidation made sense for a lot of reasons.
But in addition to that, there’s been–there’s been a significant downsizing of personnel, again, across the Medical Service Corps, the medical corps, the nursing corps. And the ability to take care of all of the beneficiaries who have been promised healthcare has been a challenge for the service. So at Hopkins, we’re really glad to be able to step up and collaborate and provide care for military beneficiaries who need those services.
MS. KOCH: Well, and I’m sure they’re very grateful to have you there to help fill that void. Dr. Andrew Satin, director of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Thank you so much for joining us.
DR. SATIN: Thank you, Kathleen.
MS. KOCH: And now I’ll hand it back over to The Washington Post.
MR. DUFFY: Welcome back to Washington Post Live. I’m Michael Duffy. Rosie Torres, can you hear me?
MS. TORRES: I can hear you.
MR. DUFFY: That’s good. Thank you for joining us today. We see from your–from the intro that this is hardly a theoretical issue for you. Please tell us how your husband is doing.
MS. TORRES: Thank you. Well, you know, as I said in the video, he suffers from something called constrictive bronchiolitis, which is a war lung disease where when you inhale toxins, it desensitizes your airways, so that many times is triggered by exertion. He’s been diagnosed with autoimmune issues, gastric issues, something called toxic brain injury, very similar to what you see in NFL football players, which to them is–carries a diagnosis of CTE. So, you know, as I–in the earlier segment, you were talking about the suicides. You know, these are all factors that play into the issue of suicide, all stemming from, you know, inhaling these toxic fumes. So, he’s hanging in there one day at a time. He’s now on oxygen 24 hours a day, but stays in the fight, and continues to advocate alongside me and our whole team.
MR. DUFFY: Talk to us a little bit about what was the point of burn pits, and why were they so widespread in Iraq and Afghanistan?
MS. TORRES: The point of burn pits was to dispose of waste the way they do here, you know, in our cities and towns. The difference was that, here, they safely segregate the trash and dispose of it in a safe–in a safe way that is of no harm to society and its citizens. In Iraq and Afghanistan and throughout hundreds of bases, it was just an open pit where they threw everything in there. I’ve spoken to contractors that wish to remain anonymous that have told me that they’ve seen, you know, engines of–airplane engines like Black Hawk engines or what they use there in the pit, computers, paint cans, blown-up Humvees, body parts, like everything was just doused with JP-8 jet fuel. And again, they didn’t segregate any of it. They didn’t dispose of it or utilize the incinerators that were actually on the base, that according to many contractors were more expensive to utilize than just throwing everything in a pit.
So, you know, back in–during other war campaigns, they had metal trays, and they didn’t use so much plastic. During this war you had, you know, Dunkin’ Donuts, you had Baskin-Robbins, Burger King, massive, massive amounts of plastics that were used during more and then just dispose of in these sometimes 10 acre burn pits.
MR DUFFY: Wow. Why did it take so long, in your view, for military officials to recognize the problem that burn pits were causing and the impact it was having
on the soldiers? What was–what was the issue there?
MS. TORRES: The issue was money, right? It all boiled down to money. I think, of course, you know, they were–these–I mean, it’s very public and known that you had contractors like Kellogg Brown & Root and several other contractors that were granted these contracts to dispose of waste. And a few–you know, back–more than five years ago, there was a class action lawsuit that was brought against some of these contractors. And that’s sort of where it all started–right?–was that there needed to be this accountability–accountability for every United States flag that was being draped over these coffins of these young men and women that were coming back dying from these aggressive cancers. Many times, being passed off as somatoform issues, that it was all in their head. It’s a very unique position to have been in as families of veterans and active duty members. But I think it all boiled down to money. It boiled down to cost. And there just wasn’t that, you know, oversight that should have taken place from the beginning. And I think, had it been done, there would have been not as many funerals that so many have attended, unfortunately, due to the negligence that took place.
MR. DUFFY: The Pentagon has estimated that as many as 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to the poisons that emanated from the burn pits. You founded Burn Pits 360 in 2010. What does your organization do, and how does it helps people?
MS. TORRES: We help connect those individuals and their families that have been impacted by burn pits, or any military toxic exposures. But for our organization, initially, it started with just the exposure of burn pits specifically.
So what we do is we connect those families, we operate an independent registry where veterans and their families or survivors can submit a health entry or a death entry that really has allowed us to move the mission forward of creating policy and legislation such as the recent passage of the PACT Act, and the Airborne Hazards Open Burn Pit Registry. That’s really connecting working with Congress, working with DoD to make sure that these families are served, that they’re provided the resources, so our organization, because for so many years, there really was nowhere to turn to in regards to this issue, we provide information, resources, you know, health information, clinical guidelines, and we now have stemmed into a site from going and advocating in Congress is providing medical supplies such as oxygen concentrators and hyperbaric chambers, and just really helping the community that is suffering so greatly. And now as the VA and DOD move forward in facilitating some of these needs, we’re still there to bridge the gap.
MR. SUFFY: You mentioned the PACT Act. That’s a measure that was adopted by Congress and signed by President Biden in August after a prolonged battle that was championed by you, of course, and comedian Jon Stewart. Tell us what the PACT Act does, and especially for those who have been exposed to the effects of the pits?
MS. TORRES: Well, it does help a multigenerational–through many war campaigns such as Vietnam, Gulf War, Camp Lejeune, people that were around burn pits during OEF/OIF. And it grants 23 presumptive conditions that now doesn’t put the burden on the veteran to have to prove. And we’re talking about lung disease, cancers, many cancers and many respiratory issues and other conditions that had we not had our own independent registry, I think we would not have been able to reach this success of making sure that Congress considered those 23 diseases. It’s very much like–sorry, I was just–very much like what happened with 9/11, right? They started with no diseases, and then gradually added more and more as science allowed them to.
MR. DUFFY: I was just going to say, you mentioned the registry, which is something of a database. You guys started it. What happened next, and how do you get people to sign up for it?
MS. TORRES: Sure. I mean, again, you know, the first piece of legislation was that Airborne Hazards Open Burn Pit Registry, had we not had these men and women that so selflessly, you know, and willingly registered for, including the death entries that we were tracking, were able to get us to this point. So, you know, now the VA and DOD have this joint effort where they operate their own registry. The downside to it is that it doesn’t allow you–it doesn’t allow a family, a survivor to submit a death entry, which we’d still love to see happen. But people can go on to both the VA registry or our registry on BurnPits360.org and submit an entry. We have a scientific advisory board that monitors that registry, and again, like I mentioned earlier, allows us to continue working with the Department of Defense, with the VA, with Congress in implementing a policy that makes sense, and that is life-changing and lifesaving.
MR. DUFFY: You know, we have a question from a viewer on this issue with David Knack from Virginia asks, what percentage of affected veterans have registered for the burn pit database?
MS. TORRES: Well, I know for the VA, it’s–you know, the last time I checked, it was at about, you know, maybe 300,000. I can’t remember. I mean, there’s–so much has happened. But it’s not anywhere near the number it should be at when you look at the statistics of 3.5 million. So, we can do a better job at the outreach and at the advocacy and letting that military active duty/reserve veteran community know that it actually exists and that it’s out there. So not anywhere near the numbers we’d like to see.
MR. DUFFY: What–how does one go about registering for it? Can you just walk us through that just in case someone wants to find out more?
MS. TORRES: So for the Burn Pits 360 registry, like I mentioned, you can go on our website, hit the registry tab, and it only takes a few minutes. It’s not an extensive registry that requires much, but it does allow us to, like I mentioned earlier, create this real time–with accessing this real time data, a policy that makes sense to our community of people affected.
For the VA one, you can just go to VA.gov, and the burn pit registry link should be there on the website, or type in “VA Airborne Hazards Burn Pit Registry.” And it’s just become very user friendly in the sense of accessing the registry. That one does take a bit longer, and it does require a bit more on behalf of the veteran. But you can go on to VA.gov or BurnPits360.org to register for both. And I encourage that–I highly encourage you registering for both registries that are out there.
MR. DUFFY: We talked in the last segment about the stigmas that sometimes are attached to getting help on mental health issues. Why do you think some veterans may be reluctant to register in this database or two databases?
MS. TORRES: I think there’s always that fear of, you know, not so much retaliation, but maybe retaliation through their benefits or being labeled right? People–there’s this mistrust with the department. And what I’ve seen so far here this past couple of years, I’ve seen a secretary who has done an outstanding job in being very transparent with what the VA can and can’t deliver. So, I do encourage any veteran watching to go to the registry and submit your entry. I think if–I feel that we may not be where we want to be. But the only way to get there is by cooperating and submitting this information that I feel will really pressure VA and DoD to do a better job with the way ahead.
MR. DUFFY: I have another question from a viewer that goes like this: Are symptoms from brain toxicity from burn pits on par with concussion symptoms caused by IEDs, improvised explosive devices? And do these symptoms overlap in servicemembers who have been exposed to both? Can you take a swing at that?
MS. TORRES: Right, it could be both. It could be, you know, from–for example, with my husband, he didn’t recall being involved in any IED blasts or exposed or around any blasts of any kind. So, for us, it was a little more simple to target that this was an issue of toxic exposure and not both. But for many men and women, it is both. So that really is a lot more pressure on their health, a lot more complications, you know, to the brain, that now you have an issue of restricted–restrictive blood vessels in the brain, which is what they found on–in my husband’s scans, in addition to the concussion issues and blasts that that have been–have impacted the lives of many men and women. So, we have a lot to do and a lot to learn, and so does the VA and DoD in that side of have specialized health care, and the diseases and health issues that are resulting from inhaling hundreds of toxic chemicals and fumes.
MR. DUFFY: You know, claims filed by soldiers who were claiming to be affected by the burn pits were at first or very often in the early years in the aftermath of these conflicts, or at least while they were still underway, they were denied by the VA at a pretty high rate. Reporting shows sometimes as many as three and four. What was the reason for that? And have you seen those numbers improve?
MS. TORRES: I think the reason again boiled down to money, right? After we sat down with members of Congress and Jon Stewart joined us in those conversations, you know, it was really our hope that–you know, that veterans wouldn’t be labeled as compensation-seeking individuals presenting with these very complex issues. I–you’re right. I mean, it was a high percentage of claims being denied–one of the reasons why we slept on the steps of the Capitol when we did, because too many people were dying. And there was just this, you know, stigma that veterans didn’t want to work or that these illnesses and diseases just weren’t real.
So I have seen through the data that VA has put out, there’s been an increase now in claims that they are granting in favor of the veteran. You now have these 23 presumptions they’re working with that will allow the VA to rule in favor of the veteran who is claiming exposure due to burn pits or deployment-related exposures.
MR. DUFFY: You know, it was a long process I know to get the PACT Act through Congress, and you were a tireless advocate in that respect. Sleeping on the steps of the Capitol is not a normal lobbying tactic. What did you learn about how the Capitol works or doesn’t work as a result of that experience?
MS. TORRES: I mean, I learned that, you know, things can be done peacefully. And the American way is to, you know, really show the men and women we elected into Congress that our country’s warfighters and their families just were not going to sit back and accept that they weren’t going to grant us a piece of legislation that would help save lives. We weren’t going to allow Congress to play partisan politics on the backs–on the backs of sick and dying veterans.
And so we learned that that, you know, it was a beautiful opportunity to really show America, to mobilize America on this joint effort, with Congress and with the 9/11 community. So, I learned that, you know, it’s–you can create change if you don’t, you know, just sit back and accept no for an answer. It was an honor to be on those steps for six days with these men and women. They taught me so much. I didn’t serve. I worked for the VA for 23 years. But being able to lead alongside them and hear their stories and just the resilience from these individuals was amazing. And we wouldn’t have done anything different.
MR. DUFFY: We’re out of time now, Rosie, but I want to just thank you for joining us and taking time out of your day to help us understand what you’ve been through, are still working through, and what you’ve accomplished. So, thank you so much.
MS. TORRES: Thank you for having us. Thank you.
MR. DUFFY: And thanks to all of you for watching. To check out what interviews and other programs we have coming, please head to WashingtonPostLive.com to register. I’m Michael Duffy. Thank you for watching.