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.