A group of veterans took the unusual step this month of suing the Defense Department to obtain records about toxic conditions at a military base in Uzbekistan they believe is linked to their rare cancers and other illnesses. At least 15,000 service members passed through Karshi Khanabad Air Base, commonly known as K2, to support missions in nearby Afghanistan after 9/11.
The veterans advocacy groups taking legal action against the Department of Defense claim that public records about K2 do not explain the high rates of cancers among those who deployed there. The lawsuit argues “records from DoD could contain information that would allow healthcare providers to know with greater certainty the type and quantity of toxic substances that Karshi-Khanabad veterans were exposed to.”
In 2020, a CBS News investigation uncovered evidence of hazardous conditions at the base, including soil saturated with jet fuel and warnings about chemical agents. As part of that investigation, a Defense Department employee said he was handed a fragment that an officer said was a “piece of yellowcake,” a refined form of uranium ore. The employee said he also witnessed radiation readings “seven to nine times higher than normal background radiation.”
Military surgeon Gordon Peters told CBS News he also witnessed potential health hazards at the base including a “field scattered with enriched uranium, partially enriched uranium, yellowcake.” He recalled seeing Geiger counters, instruments used to detect radiation, light up.
Pictures of material found at the base were shared with a K2 veteran and appear to support these accounts.
In response to a list of questions from CBS News, a defense official called the yellowcake claim a “mischaracterization of the depleted uranium fragments that were discovered there,” adding that “no environmental survey or report of K2 has ever identified the presence of yellowcake at K2.”
CBS News has also learned that following a spill at a base bunker in 2003, an environmental team dispatched to K2 discovered traces of hydrogen cyanide, a toxic chemical agent, though its use was unclear. Records reviewed by CBS News reveal Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was then a commanding general, was briefed about that incident.
The defense official did not address the 2003 briefing to then-General Austin about hydrogen cyanide but said other environmental surveys did not detect chemical warfare agents.
“We need answers, our veterans need answers now,” said Meghan Brooks, a supervising attorney with Yale’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic who filed the suit last week on behalf of two veterans organizations, the Stronghold Freedom Foundation and the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.
The lawsuit comes after the Yale group sent numerous Freedom Of Information Act requests to the Defense Department for additional records about the former Soviet military base.
“It is honestly shocking and unconscionable that the requests have just been ignored, bounced around the Department of Defense, not prioritized,” Meghan Brooks said. She said the records are the “difference between knowing what happened to you and being in the dark.”
Meghan Brooks’ father, Lt. Col. Tim Brooks, was among the first soldiers deployed to K2 after 9/11. Not long after returning, Tim’s wife Kim Brooks says her husband was briefed about a possible exposure.
“He says, ‘I was just told I was exposed to some very bad stuff.’ And the thing that I remember from that is, I heard uranium,” Kim Brooks said.
Tim was later diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. He died in 2004, leaving Kim Brooks a single mother of four.
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal voiced his support for K2 veterans at a press conference last week announcing the lawsuit. He vowed to seek accountability and personally “take this fight and this issue” to Secretary Austin.
Blumenthal acknowledged that while the PACT Act last year expanded health care benefits for many who developed illnesses because of their exposure to toxic substances, gaps for K2 veterans remain.
“Uranium. Nerve gas. Chemical solvents used in fuel for airplanes and vehicles. The list is staggering and the neglect is stunning. The United States government has a responsibility to provide information to these veterans so they can get the medical care that they need,” Blumenthal said.
K2 veteran Mark Jackson was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan by then-General Austin. Since CBS News first interviewed the 45-year-old three years ago, his health has steadily declined. Over the years, his thyroid has stopped functioning and his bones have inexplicably deteriorated, baffling his doctors. He is currently in the hospital recovering from his sixth surgery since last August.https://www.cbsnews.com/news/injured-veteran-burn-pit-law/
Jackson said he does not qualify for service-connected benefits or care under the PACT Act.
For Meghan and Kim Brooks their fight is about getting answers for veterans like Jackson. Because Tim Brooks died on active duty, they received significant benefits that many other K2 veterans can’t access.
“The reason I became a veterans law attorney in large part is because when veterans and their families get the benefits, they thrive,” Meghan Brooks said. “And when veterans and their families don’t get those benefits, they really struggle. And that’s why I think we’re both in this fight on behalf of other K2 families.”
In a statement to CBS News, a spokesperson for Secretary Austin said “service member and veteran care continues to remain a top priority for the Department.”
A defense official did not answer whether the Pentagon would expedite the release and declassification of additional records related to K2 but said environmental health site surveys are already declassified.
In response to the CBS News investigation, an executive order was signed in January 2021 by then-President Donald Trump calling on the defense secretary and VA secretary to conduct a one-year, comprehensive study into toxic exposure by members of the armed forces at K2. Asked why that executive order was not implemented, the defense official said, “This is not accurate – the independent study is currently being carried out. We expect the report will be complete late next year.”
Shortly after Austin took office two years ago, then-spokesman John Kirby told CBS News Austin was “aware of the health issues and associated claims of veterans who were assigned to the Karshi-Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan.” Kirby said Austin would seek “more clarity on the issue” and looked forward to consulting with the Department of Veterans Affairs on the “most appropriate way forward.”
Asked last week about the result of consultations with the VA, the defense official said, “We have 3 separate studies – one that is DoD-executed, one that is VA-executed, and one that is independent party-executed and examining VA/DoD together. We expect that final ongoing study (of both DoD and VA) to be complete by end of next year.”