Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Tim Brooks deployed to a remote air base in Uzbekistan called Karshi-Khanabad, a former Soviet and Uzbek military base used to provide logistics support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
At least once, he wrote his wife Kim and described an environment where “black gunk” seeped up through the floorboards of his quarters and fine dust settled on all surface areas.
When the officer arrived safely back at Fort Drum, N.Y., life returned to normal, Kim Brooks said. It wasn’t until a post-deployment briefing in which Tim Brooks was told his unit had been exposed to “some really bad stuff” at Karshi-Khanabad, also known as K2, that she began worrying.
Two years later, as Tim Brooks’ unit prepared to leave again — this time to Iraq — he collapsed during a pre-deployment brief and later diagnosed with Stage 3 brain cancer. He lived for just one more year.
Kim Brooks might have chalked her husband’s illness up to bad luck had she not started discovering other unusual illnesses among K2 veterans, she told members of Congress during a hearing Thursday.
Now she is fighting for families whose lives have been devastated by what they say are diseases caused by extensive pollutants at the installation.
“[These] families and veterans deserve to know the full extent of what they were exposed to so they can focus on their on their health and plan for their futures,” Kim Brooks told the House Oversight and Reform National Security Subcommittee.
Kim Brooks, retired Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Widener and retired Chief Warrant Officer 2 Scott Welsch were in Washington to advocate on behalf of the 7,000 Army, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel assigned to K2 from 2001 to 2005. They believe the camp should be a recognized hot zone for toxic exposures and ill K2 veterans should qualify for health care and disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Our nation’s bravest warriors are sick and dying from their service at K2,” said Widener, who has had colon cancer and suffers from daily headaches, migraines and memory loss.
The controversy surrounding K2 contamination and suffering veterans was first reported in December 2019 by McClatchy reporter Tara Copp. DoD documents obtained by the news organization stated that the grounds of the base, also known as Camp Stronghold Freedom, were contaminated with missile propellant, solvents, fuel, lubricants, trace amounts of chemical weapons and depleted uranium.
Runoff ponds were bright green, earning the nickname Skittles for their unnatural hue, and “black goo” seeped up through the soil — the ooze of byproducts dumped when the Soviets used it as an air facility.
Veterans who have fallen sick after leaving the military have asked DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs to study the contaminants and their possible health consequences, but have received little response.
Widener, who serves as an administrator for a Facebook group for K2 veterans, asked one of the group’s own, retired Army National Guard Lt. Col. Omar Hamada, a former flight surgeon with 1st Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group, to conduct a health survey of the group’s 3,700 members.
According to Widener, the 1,200 completed surveys to date indicate a cancer rate among the group of 14 percent and 20 different serious diseases in the cadre.
Members of the House Oversight Committee sent letters in January to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asking them to provide all existing documents describing the conditions at K2 and their plans for supporting the veterans who served there.
According to Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., the Pentagon did not respond and the VA only sent a health assessment crafted by the Army that is available on the internet.
“Even that report recognized there were statistically higher instances of cancer among K2 veterans and stated that its results, quote, ‘may motivate further investigation,’" Lynch said.
Army documents, including a fact sheet produced by the Army Public Health Center, noted the presence of particulate matter, jet fuel, asbestos and depleted uranium at the site, but mainly concluded that there was little or low long-term health risks caused by pollutants.
According to the center, the U.S. military filled the jet fuel contamination trench "with clean soil to create a cap to hold the vapors underground,” and “areas contaminated with depleted uranium and asbestos were covered with a thick layer of clean dirt to mitigate exposure.”
For Lynch and Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., the Army documents are not enough. They have introduced a bill that would require the secretary of defense to assess the exposures encountered by service members assigned to K2. The proposed K2 Veterans Toxic Exposure Accountability Act, H.R. 5957, also would require DoD and VA to address health conditions related to exposure.
“Unfortunately, we have seen this pattern play out before. From Agent Orange in Vietnam, to military burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not the first time the VA has initially refused to acknowledge certain health conditions as related to military service, only to have that judgment overruled and a presumption of service-connected service established when additional information emerges,” Lynch said.
“What that bill would do," added Green, "is … mandate that those conditions that warrant it be listed as presumptive. It’s the right thing to do,”
Green, also an Army doctor who served as flight surgeon for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and deployed to K2, said he should “declare a conflict of interest in this.”
“Many of the people in the room know that I had colon cancer and thyroid cancer. Who gets two primary cancers at the same time? It’s unheard of. … It shouldn’t happen to me. It shouldn’t happen to any of our warriors," Green said.
The two congressmen encouraged all K2 veterans to join the Facebook group and contact their offices if they have concerns.
Brooks described herself as “fortunate” that her husband was diagnosed and died on active duty because he received health care and a paycheck while he was sick, giving him time to spend the rest of his short life with his family. She also receives VA disability and indemnity compensation, health care, survivor and education benefits because he was actively serving at the time of his death.
But other K2 families have struggled, she said.
"It’s been over 15 years since we lost Tim. It’s newly devastating to learn that others are going through the same pain and loss my family did without the support they were promised when they decided to serve.”
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.