I don’t really remember when I first heard about burn pits, though I know I started researching for this article at least a year before it was published, maybe even earlier. I keep a file on my desk of research for stories I want to write, if I ever have the time or opportunity, and when I went through it last fall, I found a printout of a short article about burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Next thing I knew, my editor had approved my pitch and I was knee-deep in research.
I spent more time reading and researching than I had in quite a while. It took me several months to do all that background work and interview everyone, and there were numerous updates that needed to be worked in as time went on. I wanted to make sure I packed this 1,500-word article as full of information as I could, because it really is an important issue. All in all, I think I spent six months working on this article, longer than anything else I’d ever written. (Generally, from conception to completion, I’m done in a few weeks, with the biggest lag coming from the difficulty of scheduling interviews.)
When the article went to the Penthouse fact-checker, she came by to get a list of my sources and all my supporting documentation, and I think she nearly had a heart attack when I gave her the long, long list of articles and interviews she’d need to check. Oops! But I also got to impress her. Everyone in the Penthouse editorial department is pretty news savvy, and we all watch CNN and MSNBC and all that jazz even more than we watch porn. After checking a few quotes with me, the fact-checker wanted to know which of the quotes came from interviews I’d done myself and which I’d borrowed from other sources. I told her all the quotes were from my own interviews except one (which of course had proper attribution), and she asked if it was Paul Rieckhoff’s quote. “No,” I told her, “I interviewed him myself. Always do. He’s the best.” She was surprised I’d gotten someone who’s a regular on all the big news shows to speak to me, and I got to tell her that I’ve interviewed him numerous times. She was understandably impressed. (Hell, I’m impressed every time I realize I get to speak to him, too.)
For me, that’s one of the coolest things about this job: having access to people I admire and getting to discuss the issues with them. Rieckhoff (founder of IAVA) has always been a great interview, and he always takes a few minutes to discuss my other story ideas with me or give me some ideas that he thinks would work. He’s been super supportive from my very first article, and it’s such an incredible honor to get to pick his brain. But I also get to talk to amazing guys from the VFW, like Joe Davis and Ryan Gallucci, who are doing incredible work for our nation’s veterans. Then there are people like Dr. Steve Coughlin and Dr. Anthony Szema, both of whom I expected to shoot me down but who readily agreed to be interviewed. To have these incredible minds on the other end of the line is always astonishing to me, and I love having the chance to learn from them.
I’ve never been interested in meeting celebrities, and aside from a few guys in bands who I interviewed years ago, I haven’t really dealt with them. Don’t get me wrong, all the “celebrities” I’ve met have been perfectly nice, and some of them I really enjoyed talking to (Serj Tankian will always stand out as the biggest celebrity I’ve interviewed, as well as the most interesting), but I don’t get all that excited by the prospect of dealing with famous people. To me, they’re just people. But the idea of interviewing someone who’s doing something important, someone who I know is smart and dedicated, that’s daunting as hell. I get so excited and so nervous. I pull late-night cram sessions to study before the interview, and I dress up—even for phone interviews, lest they hear the disshevelment in my voice—to make sure I look and feel as professional as possible. I set up an iPad full of notes in case I forget something while we’re talking, and I give myself pep talks right before I dial their number, reminding myself that I’m smart enough to hold my own. It’s a little cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs, but it works. And when I hang up the phone or walk out of the office, I always breathe the biggest sigh of relief, amazed that the person I was speaking to didn’t hang up on me or flee the interview as soon as I opened my mouth.