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.
Sometimes I write things that have nothing to do with porn or sex. Recently I wrote an article about Tricare and the Veterans Affairs health care system. That won’t be out for a while, but it reminded me of this article that ran in the March 2009 issue of Penthouse. It was supposed to be a short blurb, at most, but it grew into a two-page article that I think tells a pretty cool story about the everyday lives of our soldiers. It was such a great topic to immerse myself in for a few weeks, and it’s a piece I’m extremely proud to have in my clip book.
While researching and interviewing, I got to talk to a lot of really great people. Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America was a wonderful resource and such an enjoyable interview. It’s always nice to interview people who are not only brilliant, but who you want to talk to after the interview is over. Paul is definitely both, and I’m thrilled every time we get to chat. (I’ve also read his book, Chasing Ghosts, more than a few times. It’s an amazing story and so well written. Everyone should check it out.)
Another guy I interviewed for the story was David Ratcliff, a soldier I found on MySpace. I messaged him through the site and got a phone call the next day. He didn’t believe I really worked at Penthouse, and he couldn’t understand why I would want to get in touch with him. Once I sent him my credentials, though, he was a really fun guy to talk to. He was smart and had good taste in music (key for the piece, obviously), and he gave me more than a few good quotes.
All the soldiers were great, and I can’t say enough about them. There were some I didn’t get to use in the article, and some who I didn’t expect to use but who ended up surprising me. One of the surprises was Joe DeRidder, who happens to be my cousin. Joe’s a really smart guy, and I love hanging out with him and talking to him when he’s home. But he’s not the most verbose person. I didn’t think he’d give me much material to work with. He surprised me, though, and had a lot to say. (My dad, who swears he’s “never heard the kid say more than three words at a time” thought maybe there was another Joe DeRidder. He was impressed.) The article made for a fun show-and-tell at our next family get-together.
One of the coolest things, though, was interviewing the musicians who were involved. Bryan from the Bouncing Souls was awesome, and the band’s publicist/manager was really cool. We didn’t get to do the interview in person, because the band was on tour, but Bryan’s emails were great, and he cracked me up when we discussed doing the interview via BlackBerry.
Serj Tankian was another great interview. His manager called me within five minutes of my sending an email requesting an interview, and said she’d already spoken to him and he was very interested in talking to me. I was blown away, and we set up a phoner for later that day. I don’t think I’ve ever set up an interview so quickly, even with my friends! I didn’t get to use his quotes in the story (they just didn’t fit with the tone of the article), but we chatted for 45 minutes, and he was super cool. He told me a great Sarah Palin joke, and then made my day (probably my entire year) by telling me that the story I was writing mattered, and he thought that I was a smart, savvy journalist, which, in his book, made me the cool one. I saved the recording and listen to it every now and then when I want to feel like a rock star.
I’ve been fortunate in that I only have to write the stories I want to write, and I work with people who are as excited about the topics I cover as I am. It means my clip book is full of great stories that double as really great memories.