Jason Arment

Burn Pit Research up in Smoke

Burn pit research is falling by the wayside just like gun violence research. Who suffers? Veterans. Again. Jason Arment asks why and wants it corrected.


The U.S. is at it again, and this time without the decency of promises assuring us everything was handled properly and will be all right. I’m referring to how this nation continues to pursue its vested interest in not figuring out what’s really going on with veterans beyond just tallying up some statistics, except that now they might not even be doing that anymore when it comes to burn pits.

Let’s briefly go over some history in order to construct context. Agent Orange is infamous now as the chemical widely used in Vietnam as an herbicide that seriously messed up a lot of service members. The government didn’t confront its culpability for decades. Fast forward a little bit to the service members affected with Gulf War Syndrome, another ailment due to chemical exposure, but one we still don’t understand.

And those are just two quick big-picture examples; when the smaller details are examined it becomes surreal, but something that is all too familiar to those who served.

For instance, my grandfather served in the Navy aboard a ship during the Korean War. Waiting in line for chow in the mess hall, someone threw a metal tray and it broke out most of his lower teeth. But even though this certainly happened, and even though men he served with wrote letters in testament, the government simply refuses to acknowledge that the issue is service related, so my eighty-something-year-old grandfather is on the hook for the dentures he needs.

But I don’t think my grandfather looks at his service as a sacrifice, even though he lost some teeth and the boiler room took his hearing. Orphaned at a young age, he never imagined he’d see the world and then start his own painting business after his service. Recently, Mike Huckabee met my grandfather in a small coffee shop near Leon, Iowa. I don’t know if he still calls my grandfather weekly to discuss politics and see how things are going in the rural Midwest, but when I first heard about their communiqués they had been going on for some months.

Maybe I should have him ask Huckabee why burn pits are off the research docket, as if the problem is going to get better with time. If you’ve never heard of a service member succumbing to sickness caused by burn pit exposure, then you’ve not read Letters from Abu Ghraib by Joshua Casteel, and that’s a damn shame. About as much of a shame that Casteel was taken from us so early, dying of lung cancer on August 25, 2012, at the age of 32. Casteel had lived near a burn pit for six months of his life in Iraq.

I am hard pressed to think of a Marine I served with who was not exposed to burn pits for extended periods of time in Iraq; not only that but also during garrison when we were stateside. The practice of burning things, from shit to bodies to garbage to villages to entire nations, is a practice deeply engrained in the Marine Corps. Something that every veteran has thought about when they get letters informing them of the burn pit exposure registry the VA is passing around.

Casteel was from the Midwest, just like me. He also lived and studied in Iowa, graduating from the University of Iowa with a dual MFA in playwriting and nonfiction in 2008, around the time I was in Iraq. I also lived and studied in Iowa, although my stay was after his and at Iowa State, and my MFA in nonfiction is from VCFA. And although we have many things in common, our biggest difference actually matters. I was never a conscientious objector—I was just one of those Marines that bitched a lot and made everyone’s life harder by being an asshole. I’d like to think that it wasn’t that I lacked the resolve to not just disapprove of the war but actually act. For me, the only way out of the contract was through; Marines who don’t play war go to jail and get their lives ruined, and I also needed the money. But for Casteel, it had been different.

In his published correspondence, one watches him pace the halls of his mind, relentlessly questioning the morality of the war and his role. I admire that when the inquisition kept him up at night he didn’t hide from it, but instead acted. And I would like to ask him if he was censored, considering where he worked as an interrogator, what he saw and heard, what the prisoners told him about their treatment.

But, I can’t. And, much like other research that has been recently declined such as gun violence research, the motivations behind dropping burn pit research is also politically motivated. It’s not that the average person who knows what’s going on about either of those issues thinks that there shouldn’t be research, it’s that we aren’t being given a say. And what’s most frustrating about all of this is that not only is it the wrong choice, it’s the obvious wrong choice. A bad decision. Something to be undone later. Accountability absent without authorized leave, wandering the existential desert.


Jason Arment

Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review, Dirty Chai, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Volume 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, The Florida Review, and Phoebe. Jason lives in Denver.

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