After a month, the first symptoms appeared: pressure on the chest, knotted stomach, a thickening aura followed by the sensation of someone scratching the base of the skull. He was quarantined over Christmas for fear he had caught a virus; base doctors dismissed his concern, saying it was “Iraqi rawness”.
When her husband returned home a year later, Ms Torres was euphoric. He’s fine, she thought. “He’s not missing any limbs.” But he was not well. She would find him curled up around an ottoman, rocking back and forth, bandanas tight around his head in an effort to ward off the pain. He was also suffering from new and unknown ailments: rectal bleeding, fainting and, of course, that cough.
Frightened, Ms. Torres turned to the internet. “Soldiers returning from Iraq dying,” she typed into the search bar. It led to an electrifying discovery: Mr Torres wasn’t the only one to come home with similar symptoms. She spent hours exchanging emails and talking to spouses, comparing symptoms and bits of information from doctors, and soon she had built a network that became Burn Pits 360, a nonprofit organization. which has finally, after years of frustration, begun to gain traction with lawmakers.
In 2012, when Mr Torres was forced out of his job, his health had deteriorated. Ms. Torres quit her job to care for him and seek out the necessary paperwork to qualify for disability benefits through the VA. Mr. Torres was lucky in a narrow sense: in 2013, he finally received a then-rare acknowledgment from the VA that he had been incapacitated by exposure to burning fireplaces and began to receive a disability award which now amounts to approximately $3,000 per month.
By then, however, the couple had already spent their savings and started borrowing — loans from family members, ruinous advances from payday storefronts, depleted credit cards. Creditors harassed them; they were about to lose their home. It would take years to get out of debt.
“No pay, no pay, no pay,” Mr Torres said. “We have fallen further and further behind. My depression was skyrocketing. I did not know what to do.
He reached breaking point one night in 2016, as another headache gripped his skull.
He picked up a shotgun. Mrs. Torres heard him cock the gun, and she lunged at him, grabbing the gun. The couple’s dog, a service German Shepherd named Hope, ran around in anxious circles, then grabbed Mr Torres by the seat of his cargo pants and threw him to the ground. The gun came off.