Mil­i­tary knew vet­er­ans at base in Uzbek­istan were at risk for toxic air

The News Tribune - - Front Page - BY TARA COPP tcopp@mc­


The U.S. government was con­cerned about con­tam­i­nants in the air that ser­vice mem­bers breathed in at a for­mer So­viet base in Uzbek­istan as early as 2002, newly re­leased doc­u­ments ob­tained ex­clu­sively by McClatchy show.

Mil­i­tary health in­ves­ti­ga­tors trav­eled to the base,

Karshi-Khan­abad, mul­ti­ple times be­tween 2001 and 2004 to as­sess the con­tam­i­na­tion there. McClatchy has pre­vi­ously re­ported on the chem­i­cal and ra­di­o­log­i­cal con­tam­i­nants found on the ground at K2, as the base was com­monly known.

But doc­u­ments pro­duced by the Depart­ment of De­fense for a con­gres­sional over­sight com­mit­tee, ob­tained by McClatchy, show there were also con­cerns about harm­ful con­tam­i­nants in the air.

Hun­dreds of vet­er­ans who were as­signed to K2 be­tween 2001 and 2005 have re­ported can­cer di­ag­noses.

The House Over­sight and Re­form sub­com­mit­tee on na­tional se­cu­rity is in­ves­ti­gat­ing toxic ex­po­sure faced by U.S. forces at that base and the longterm ill­nesses they now have, in an ef­fort to get their ill­nesses rec­og­nized by the De­fense Depart­ment and Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs as con­nected to their time at the base.

What mil­i­tary in­ves­ti­ga­tors found dur­ing those 2001 to 2004 in­ves­ti­ga­tions was that most of the per­son­nel based there would be ex­posed to po­ten­tially harm­ful sub­stances, in­clud­ing tetra­chloroethy­lene, which has been linked to a va­ri­ety of can­cers.

“It is es­ti­mated that be­tween 50% and 75% of per­son­nel at Strong­hold Free­dom [K2] will be ex­posed to el­e­vated lev­els of com­pounds in air,” the in­ves­ti­ga­tors wrote in 2002.

The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion has linked tetra­chloroethy­lene to higher risks of blad­der can­cer, mul­ti­ple myeloma or non-Hodgkin’s lym­phoma, among other can­cers.

“The haz­ard prob­a­bil­ity was clas­si­fied as likely,” the health in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­ported.

On Wed­nes­day, sub­com­mit­tee chair­man Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., dis­cussed some of the doc­u­ments, which were re­cently de­clas­si­fied by the De­fense Depart­ment as part of the panel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

A Septem­ber 2004 re­port found that “the po

ten­tial for daily con­tact with ra­di­a­tion ex­ists for up to 100 per­cent of the as­signed units,” Lynch said to re­porters, read­ing from the doc­u­ment.

McClatchy first re­ported on the chem­i­cal and ra­di­o­log­i­cal con­tam­i­na­tion found at K2 as part of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the hun­dreds of ser­vice mem­bers who de­ployed there who now have can­cer.

K2 vet­er­ans also sus­pect some of their ill­nesses may be tied to burn pits — large open fires used by U.S. forces to burn trash of all types, send­ing par­ti­cles of metal, plastic, rub­ber and hu­man waste into the air above the base.

A 2004 in­spec­tion found that “there was one large fire ac­tively burn­ing dur­ing the [in­spec­tion], and on 2 Septem­ber 2004 there were two smaller fires burn­ing in the same area,” mil­i­tary health in­spec­tors wrote. “The smell of burn­ing plastic was ev­i­dent, and ash was noted blow­ing from the fire site.”

But the VA burn pit registry does not in­clude K2 as a con­tam­i­na­tion site, and that lack of recog­ni­tion has had a di­rect im­pact on vet­er­ans who sought to have their med­i­cal and dis­abil­ity claims cov­ered.

The mil­i­tary base was used by spe­cial oper­a­tions forces in the im­me­di­ate re­sponse to the 9/11 at­tacks, be­cause of its prox­im­ity to Tal­iban and al Qaeda tar­gets in Afghanista­n.

In re­cent months, Iraq and Afghanista­n vet­er­ans groups have sought to get can­cers and res­pi­ra­tory ill­nesses rec­og­nized as a pre­sump­tive med­i­cal out­come tied to burn pit ex­po­sure to make it eas­ier for the more than

208,000 vet­er­ans who have re­ported ill­nesses to have their med­i­cal costs cov­ered by the VA.

Mem­bers of Congress and VA Sec­re­tary Robert Wilkie have pledged to ad­dress the is­sue.

A bipartisan bill in­tro­duced by Lynch and Rep. Mark Green, RTenn., an Army vet­eran who de­ployed to K2 and has been di­ag­nosed with two can­cers, would re­quire the De­fense Depart­ment and VA to study the ex­po­sures and ill­nesses that have af­fected the vet­er­ans of K2.

Lynch told re­porters he is hope­ful the bill can be added as an amend­ment to the Na­tional De­fense Au­tho­riza­tion Act, ac­knowl­edg­ing that due to the pan­demic and the time pres­sures of an elec­tion year it would be dif­fi­cult to get a sep­a­rate bill through Congress.

“Many K2 vet­er­ans have time sen­si­tive needs,” Lynch said. “They’ve got ad­vanced can­cers and dis­or­ders that need to be ad­dressed now.”

Wilkie has urged K2 vet­er­ans to come for­ward to get the care they need from VA clin­ics, promis­ing their care will not get tied up in pa­per­work.

“We have peo­ple ready to help. That’s the message that I give to K2,” Wilkie said in Fe­bru­ary.

He is work­ing with the

De­fense Depart­ment to ad­dress the claim de­nials that K2 vet­er­ans are still re­ceiv­ing.

How­ever in a call with re­porters ear­lier this week, Wilkie was sur­prised to learn that a K2 vet­eran with prostate can­cer who sought treat­ment at the VA af­ter Wilkie’s prom­ise still had his claim de­nied.

An ap­proval from the VA would have meant more of the vet­eran’s med­i­cal costs would have been cov­ered. In the de­nial, the VA cited that there is no link rec­og­nized be­tween ser­vice at K2 and can­cer. The vet­eran who con­tacted McClatchy asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause of the po­ten­tial im­pact on his claim.

Wilkie said he would keep work­ing on get­ting K2 vet­er­ans care cov­ered.

“I was deadly se­ri­ous when I said that,” Wilkie said dur­ing the Tues­day phone call with re­porters. “We are work­ing on those dis­abil­ity rat­ings, and we are work­ing with the Depart­ment of De­fense on that front on the K2 is­sue.”

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