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How was it that I had never heard of burn pits? Certainly these open-air trash fires, which were everywhere in Iraq and Afghanistan during the conflicts in those countries, had been written about, been the subject of lawsuits and been blamed for sickening scores, if not hundreds of veterans, of those wars.
Yet somehow, I had managed to miss the story — like much of the nation, I suspect.
I took on a new beat, veterans affairs, at the end of last year. It interested me because it combined many of my past reporting gigs — health care, the West, politics and Congress — while introducing me to a culture I know little about.
So it often goes with veterans, a population our nation reveres but often forgets. We understand that they have high rates of suicide, post-traumatic stress and opioid use. But we are less aware of their daily challenges, including predatory lenders and for-profit colleges, that target them specifically.
Many things probably contribute to the attention deficit. One may be that journalists sometimes lose sight of stories outside of our expertise. We often silo ourselves in our coverage areas. In that sense, we’re regular readers. We gravitate toward our pre-existing interests.
My interest in covering veterans issues began while I was working as a live events editor for The New York Times, programming panels with Times journalists around the country alongside our At War team. Whether it was in Washington, with Senator Tammy Duckworth before a sold-out crowd, or in an intimate setting in San Diego with the writer of “American Sniper,” I saw that The Times had a chance to build an audience in the veterans community that we were not seeing at other events.
That, and my curiosity particularly about those who served in the post-9/11 conflicts, also drew me in. Together with my colleague Dave Philipps, who has been covering veterans and other military issues from Colorado Springs, and with our reporters on the Pentagon beat, I would have a chance to go deeper and broader.
When I was establishing new sources, there were many veterans service organizations I could turn to. In writing about veterans, I found that they — and those who care for them — come to you quickly via email and Twitter, eager to share experiences and to engage.
One theme struck me right away: the differing points of view and needs of this post-9/11 generation of vets, several of whom are now representatives in the House, and some of the older veteran population. Many younger veterans, for instance, are far more interested in education and employment issues than health care policy, and in giving back to their communities — continuing their service, in their view — than advocacy work.
I came across the issue of burning toxic trash — and how it may have affected the health of those deployed during the post-9/11 wars — when talking to veterans’ advocates. The pits surfaced frequently in my conversations with veterans service organizations and on Capitol Hill; there is even a bipartisan burn pits caucus. Yet the health care data on injuries related to burn pits remains inconclusive and anecdotal, which has made it a difficult subject to report on, and for the courts to adjudicate.
Speaking with veterans who believe they have been injured by the pits of flaming garbage was difficult — they believe they went into conflicts understanding that they might not survive deployment, but they were largely unprepared for illnesses surfacing years after their service.
This is, in some sense, an analogy for many veterans’ points of view on the cultural divide between civilians and the 1 percent of Americans in the military.
They feel forgotten and frustrated, and many health care professionals feel similarly, even when conflicted about what the evidence tells us about burn pit exposure. Still, those personal stories have affected many members of Congress, including Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, who got behind legislation largely because of one or two veterans in their community who are sick or dead.
“I was just trying to be a good marine,” said Ryne Robinson, 33, a veteran with a brain tumor he and others believe stemmed from his burn pit exposure in Iraq. “The day you sign that paper and go to boot camp, you do what you’re told. ‘Suck it up, buttercup.’”
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