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