Exclusive Interview with Julia Torres
By George Beck
Julia Torres is a retired law enforcement officer who worked mainly undercover for city, county, state, and federal agencies; a Gulf War Veteran; and an accomplished author. Since her 2001 retirement due to a Gulf-related illness of multiple sclerosis, she has acted for film and stage, advocated for victims in a police unit, and fostered children in court. Her two non-fiction books–Still Standing, The Story of My Wars, and Bolder And Braver, My Undercover Life–are receiving rave reviews.
NJ Blue Now: As a Gulf War Veteran, you were exposed to chemical warfare. Can you tell us more about that?
Julia Torres: From in-processing at Khobar Towers to our missions to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait, NBC alarms sounded off, especially at ports and airports, which were often hit by SCUDs. We’d mask, give the visual signal for those who hadn’t heard it, and stay masked until we’d get the ‘All Clear.’ Sometimes we drove with our masks; we were truck drivers. Other times, we’d get into MOPPP Level IV [highest level of protection-overgarments, footwear cover, and gloves). We wore the same suit the entire tour. They are one-shot deals, once you break the seal on the package and put them on, you’re supposed to burn them. We were so ill-prepared that way, some of us didn’t even have a real suit, but the ones for training purposes. It pissed me off when civilians at home would say we weren’t exposed to chemicals. I’d say, Oh, yeah that’s right. I saw you there. That would shut them right up. In 2001, I received a letter from the Pentagon stating that our unit had been exposed to chemical agents.
You tell how you were forced by direct order to take pills and drink an unknown liquid on the battlefield, and you were told you could not get pregnant for five years after taking them, and you and others developed immediate complications, do you believe this caused your MS?
The CO ordered the company to take Pyridostigmine Bromide pills, and drink an unknown green-type liquid before the first alarm sounded. The 13 of us females were told not to get pregnant for five years after redeployment. After returning to base from a Kuwaiti mission one day, one of my buddies said the order to stop taking the PBs had been given. Troops were complaining of rashes and increased urination, but we didn’t get the word on the mission. I said it was too late. I’d already taken the full pack of 21 pills, had a rash on my forearms, and had to pull over a lot to pee, whenever I could. I brought a packet back home because I was curious about it. When I was diagnosed with MS, I looked into it and learned they were used for Myasthenia Gravis, a muscle disease. But, we used them as a pre-treatment for nerve agents. The pharmaceutical company had asked the military for a hold-harmless agreement ‘cause that wasn’t the PBs intended use. I often say the Gulf was an environmental war. I left healthy, led platoon runs, but when I came back, things slowly started going bad, but I don’t think the PBs were the only cause of the MS, nor was I the only one who became ill. Some of the guys died shortly after the Gulf, but their deaths were unexplained. I think the nine unknown inoculations, NBC exposure, depleted uranium, oil fires, smoke, sandstorms, kerosene heat, and burn pits—they were all factors.
This exposure has negatively affected your health, yet you never complain? Why is that?
I believe God doesn’t give us situations we can’t handle, and when He thinks, not us, that we can’t take it anymore, He shows us the way out. I believe that good comes from bad, at some point, like with my books. Writing about my bad experiences will help others heal like they’ve helped me. I think you have to believe things will get better, even when they look impossible, otherwise, what’s your option. Giving up? No way. I don’t know what would’ve become of me if I didn’t have faith.
As part of the East Orange VA, Team Thunder, you represent New Jersey in the annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games, can you tell us more about that?
Since MS is a spinal cord injury, I’m part of the team that competes in sports from weight lifting to quad rugby. Up until it’s time to fly out for the games, we work out with our trainer Ralph Jones at the VA’s gym. It’s like having a whole bunch of big brothers, who at the same time know that this sister will back them up. When we’re working out, we get energized. The music’s pumping, we joke, talk sh** to each other, share our thoughts… Ralph even plans trips–shopping, movies, playing pool, whatever–for us. We can’t have a better guy as our trainer. We’re a family.
Lately, in the news, there has been a lot of discussion about the inadequate care for wounded warriors. Is this justified and have you had a similar experience.
Hearing and seeing this happen makes my stomach turn because as much as the VA has changed since my return from the Gulf, it still lacks. I hadn’t returned to the VA for care until 2001 because it was so inadequate and depressing in 1991. I’d love to help revamp the whole VA system, firing the bad apples, hiring new blood who really profess a ‘veterans come first attitude,’ and if they don’t, well I’d get rid of them too. The patient-liaison advocacy is simply civilian bureaucracy; put Veterans in charge because we don’t feel that we come first. I say this for myself and all the vets I have spoken to. We should receive the best medical care when we need it. And, if you work at a VA, then don’t be a sourpuss. The attitude of some folks is dispiriting, for lack of putting a better word in print. No vet should have to wait for an appointment in an unreasonable time frame, or for a doctor to be hired because there aren’t enough. If no appointment is available, then let us see a civilian doctor without putting bullsh** pre-requisites that prevent us from getting the medical attention we need. And regarding PTSD or MST, let us also choose who we want. We don’t want to talk to someone who can’t relate, who cries over a paper cut… The VA gets a huge amount of money every year for the care of veterans, and there is no accountability. The news relay how funds are misappropriated by civilians. This is disgusting! Put ‘em in jail, and make ‘em pay the money back! There’s no excuse and definitely no pardoning. Everybody’s gotta go. That’s money for our care, not for anyone’s pocket!
You were also a law enforcement officer and a victim of domestic violence, what should our readers know about this unfortunate issue.
DV happens to anyone regardless of sex, profession, age, or financial status.
The deception behind the presumed love is so convincing that you think he/she is the best thing that’s ever happened to you. Their façade is so great that if you mention your suspicions to someone, you’re doubted. Slowly, they separate you from friends and family so that your support network is gone. Even when supervised visitation is awarded, defendants often convince caseworkers that they are good guys, and the victim is considered paranoid or exaggerating.
Regarding the law, FROs don’t protect the victim. Defense attorneys requesting adjournments should be denied. They are tactics to tire the victim from proceeding. I settled for a lesser charge when my supervisor commented on the amount of time it took from work.
If there are visible injuries, arrest. Yes, some victims drop the charges, others bail out the defendant, but those are not reasons to not effect an arrest. To assume that a perpetrator has given you their house keys, and then ask them to take a walk, puts the victim and family in danger. My ex-husband was asked to do just that, although I had visible injuries, and he left a letter on my doorstep with the house key, stating that if he wanted to kill me, he would have.
You have a lot of passion about victim advocacy with veterans, domestic violence, MST, PTSD, sexual harassment and gender equality, but particularly with sexual assault. What motivates you every day to continue this endeavor?
Helping people heal motivates me. I’m a rape survivor. I know the impact a presumed friend who yanked my virginity by drugging me after prom had on my life. I know where not addressing the issues associated with Rape Trauma Syndrome can lead, what it’s like to not have family support. It was a long road to recover me, and I’m indebted to the male officer who helped me see I could trust, and form intimate relationships again. I want victims to know that we are never to blame. Rape is never about drinking, clothes worn, or any of those archaic misconceptions which some people still hold. Rape is about power and opportunity. It happens to both male and female in the civilian sector and military, and it’s a huge challenge for men, who are deemed the stronger sex and are often ostracized because of it. If a person doesn’t believe a victim, I say ignore them. But I challenge the disbeliever to then look at the victim’s behavior after the rape, which will speak for itself.
Ten years later, I confronted my rapist who replied like a sucker–I took advantage of you. Pathetic. Regardless of his defense to label me a crazy psycho when others question him today, I had my say then, and the fact that he will not attend our high school reunions, displays his fear of me exposing him as a rapist.
The more vocal I become, the more I find women and men sharing their stories, some which spouses and family still do not know. It’s priceless to see the hurt lifted, and that is what motivates me.
You are an immensely talented writer, have you always wanted to be a writer?
Thank you, but I don’t know about being “immensely talented.” I just had bottled up things that had to come out. I’m thankful for Jamie Quattrochi, a director I met at an audition in California in 2009 who insisted I write a book when I shared some things with him. I never wanted to be a writer, but the same goes for being a soldier and a cop. It’s just how life developed, but thinking back, teachers and professors said I wrote well, although I never consider myself a writer. It wasn’t ‘til I moved back to Jersey in 2011 and took writing classes with author Barry Scheinkopf–you know him–who taught me how to really write. Barry’s the one who gets the credit.
Any new books on the horizon? Can you tell us about it?
Some folks have said I can’t stop at those two books. I don’t know. Years ago, I thought of writing an anthology of true-life stories of different people. Then, I thought of maybe writing fiction or poetry. I think if I were to write another non-fiction, it won’t be traumatic, at least, I hope not. I’m leaning on a more inspiring, calm after the storm deal. What I’d really love, is to write about God healing my MS. He still does miracles; I just have to wait and see when he’ll do it.
George Beck is a police detective, writer and a Drew University Ph.D. candidate. He’s earned several degrees including an associate’s, bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. He is the author of The Killer Among Us (Noir Nation Books) and several other books. His nonfiction and short stories have been featured in magazines and anthologies nationally and internationally.