Shortly after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s, the military and its associated contractors had a basic logistics problem to solve: what to do with all of the trash piling up on every facility from small outposts to giant installations such as Joint Base Balad, Iraq?
In most cases, officials decided to burn it in open-air pits. In the years since, thousands of veterans have pointed to those exposures as the source of serious, debilitating, sometimes fatal health problems.
Joseph Hickman, a former Marine turned soldier who previously helped expose prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, began interviewing veterans and active duty military members exposed to burn pits about their health problems and struggles with getting help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. After more than 1,000 interviews, records requests and queries to government officials, Hickman has written the book, “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers,” which was released earlier this year.
Editor’s note: this interview was edited for content and clarity.
Q: What drew you into this topic and what kept you pushing you to develop it into a book project?
A: I knew nothing about burn pits when I served in the military. After leaving service in 2009, veterans I knew told me about medical problems they were having since they served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using skills that I’d learned as a private investigator I started to check out into their claims. I was gathering information and I just kept hitting barriers. I asked for simple stuff like plume samples that they were taking. No one seemed to have them. It made me suspicious.
Q: In an author’s note in your book you first mention how Vietnam War veterans were exposed to Agent Orange and the struggles they had and still have getting recognition and treatment. Why did see that as necessary to include?
A: It’s the same patterns. Burn pits automatically remind me of Agent Orange. They had no problems they were sent to war quickly and come back with these rare health issues. The same procedures put into place to handle Agent Orange as burn pits. First they lied there was any such thing as Agent Orange. Then there wasn’t a problem. Then they admitted it could be a problem but they would have to do more studies. Then they needed a registry and monitoring. Then it was denial, denial, denial and then years later the government could actually afford it so they started doing something. Years and years and years of research that they’re doing until they say, ‘we did poison these people and we’ll make restitution.’ The burn pit victims don’t have that time.
Q: What most surprised you in your initial research about burn pits?
A: The military has regulations for everything. But there were no details in any regulation on using burn pits overseas such as how far it had to be from military quarters. A lot of these veterans were sleeping next to pits burning 24 hours a day for weeks or months. It ran with basically no regulation from 2002 to 2009.
Q: What were some of the trends in problems you saw those exposed to burn pits faced when they tried to get help?
A: You know how military doctors are, if you go to sick call they think you’re trying to get out of something. They were not treated well by the military doctors and the VA didn’t know what they were dealing with at first. But they should know now. A lot of the veterans I’m in contact with are taking my book to the VA with them to help doctors see what health problems they and others are dealing with.
Q: What should people potentially exposed to burn pits do now and what more needs to be done for those suffering from health effects of burn pit exposure?
A: These people should be quickly put through rigid medical examinations. Give them their benefits that they deserve if they are ill from toxic exposure. No more massive research. Take them to nearest medical facility or outside doctors. Just get them what they need. These people are losing their homes, they’re not getting the right treatment and they can’t afford the right treatment. Presumptive connection for certain conditions would go a long way in helping remove hurdles to care. They should contact BurnPits360, a nonprofit burn pit advocacy group run by soldier who was exposed and his wife.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.