Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
A newly released documentary on the plight of U.S. troops who believe they became ill after exposure to burn pits while serving in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t leave one with much optimism.
“I didn’t necessarily set out to make a depressing documentary,” director and producer Greg Lovett said from his home in the Netherlands. “I just wanted to present the facts, and the facts are depressing.”
During the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, burn pits were commonly used to dispose of trash generated by American troops, including chemicals, medical and human waste, plastics, metals and munitions.
Some veterans became sick after returning from deployment and believe exposure to the burn pits caused their illnesses.
“Delay, Deny, Hope You Die: How America Poisoned Its Soldiers” premiered in October, and a screening was held in Albuquerque in November.
Jessey Baca, an Albuquerque resident featured in the documentary, has been diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis and other respiratory ailments since his retirement.
He spent much of his three tours of duty repairing fighter jets right next to a huge burn pit at Joint Base Balad in Iraq.
He is seen in the documentary speaking about the conditions near the pit.
“The smell would burn your eyes, burn your throat,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who also was featured in the documentary, said, “It’s a real damning story of the way the government has treated these people. This is the Agent Orange of our generation.”
Udall worked with Baca in passing legislation in 2013 requiring the VA to create a burn pit registry.
Filmmaker Lovett said he was inspired to make the documentary after reading Joseph Hickman’s 2016 book “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers.”
Lovett said that in addition to feeling surprise at never having heard of the burn pits, he became angry and discouraged.
He said the public’s response at screenings around the country has been similar.
“Most people don’t know anything about it until they see the documentary, then they’re really, really shocked,” he said.
The film takes the viewer through the burn pit story, starting with their use in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some veterans, including Baca, say they began to feel ill just a few days into their deployments.
Social media allowed returning veterans and their families to share information about a variety of health problems experienced upon their return: cancers, skin conditions and respiratory conditions.
Although Dr. Robert Miller, a researcher at Vanderbilt University, found a connection between burn pits and the illnesses being suffered by veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs maintains evidence does not prove a connection.
The documentary also details the operations of KBR, the contractor hired by the military to handle trash generated by the troops and now facing a class-action lawsuit from a group of veterans.
Lovett, Baca and Udall each said they hope the film raises awareness of the struggles of sick veterans.
“I think what I really hope is that people’s attitude changes,” Lovett said.