K2 Vets, Cancer, and the VA

K2 Vets have high rates of cancer. VA no help.

The U.S. military occupied a base known as “K2” (Karshi-Khanabad Airbase) in southern Uzbekistan from 2001 to 2005. This was a former Soviet base where chemical weapons and hazardous materials were stored and hazardous waste buried. There is increasing evidence that K2 Vets – veterans who were formerly assigned to K2 – are experiencing a significantly higher than normal rate of cancer. Many K2 Vets have died from cancer and many more are ill from cancer. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been negligent in its recognition of the health hazards associated with K2 and non-responsive to the requests for medical treatment by veterans who served at K2.

History of K2

The base was used to launch airstrikes and support operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the fall of 2001. K2 was one of the initial launching pads of Special Forces teams that entered northern Afghanistan. As K2 operations and facilities expanded, several thousand U.S. military personnel would serve there over a period of five years. As initial OEF offensive operations concluded, K2 evolved into a significant logistics hub.

Soviet Era at K2. The Soviet military extensively used the Karshi-Khanabad air base to support its operations in Afghanistan during the 1979 – 1989 period. In addition, it was a base where it produced, stored, and tested various types of weapons – to include chemical weapons. When the Soviets withdrew from the base it dismantled the chemical weapon production facility and removed the stockpile of its chemical weapons. However, residual contamination remained in the ground and associated facilities.

In addition, the Soviet airbase was a former storage area for fuel, solvents, and other contaminants. It also served as a dumping ground for the Soviets for toxic waste materials, asbestos, enriched uranium, and other hazardous materials. Spills of toxic materials were a common occurrence at the former Soviet base.

Location of Karshi-Khanabad (K2)

Launching Pad for Operations into Afghanistan. Very little was known about the base when it was initially occupied by the 5th Special Forces Group, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (-), Air Force units, and other supporting units. In the early phases of the war, having just experienced the 9/11 attacks, there was a huge push on setting up an operational base from which to conduct operations into Afghanistan. In addition, the base was vital for airstrikes, medical evacuation, and resupply airdrops. A base was needed to launch SF teams into Afghanistan to link up with the Northern Alliance and topple the Taliban. [1]

Black ‘Goo’ and ‘Green Liquid’. What was known about K2 in the early stages of its occupation is that ‘black goo’ and ‘green liquid’ would seep up from the ground, nearby ditches and trenches held questionable water (discolored), . . . and people were getting sick. When heavy rains flooded the compound, strange-looking ‘green’ water flowed into tents occupied by US personnel. Some ponds were nicknamed ‘Skittles’ because they glowed like candy. When the U.S. initially occupied the base there were numerous signs posted by the Uzbekistan authorities warning of the presence of chemical agents and radioactive materials.

K2 Tent City. Most K2 residents lived and worked in tents. Some worked
in hard structures but later were moved to other structures due to contaminants.
(photo provided by CSM Ret Jose Silva)

Initial Concern. There was concern among those based at K2 about the health ramifications of the camp. A favorite ‘photo op’ was taking a picture next to a warning sign about chemical contamination or radiation hazards that were posted in various sections of the airfield. Medical sections of some of the units that were based at K2 distributed memos listing the medical hazards of K2 for personnel to enclose in their health records. These memos highlighted the extraordinary levels of noise at the airbase, the intense dust storms and airborne particulate matter, and volatile fumes in some of the air base structures where U.S. military personnel worked. However, conducting detailed risk and health assessments on the real estate of hastily occupied bases supporting the initial war effort was not a priority.

A Growing Awareness Among K2 Vets

After returning to the states it soon became apparent to members of the units that were based at K2 that an extraordinary number of their fellow service members were falling ill and some of them dying of a host of illnesses. The most serious illnesses plaguing the K2 Vets were the different types of cancer – lung, prostrate, colon, and head and neck cancers. In addition, personnel were experiencing respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, skin rashes, and other unexplained medical ailments.

As the years progressed unit members transferred to other units, left military service, retired, or passed away. No one was keeping tabs on the medical health of service members stationed at K2 as a group. So initially, there was just lots of rumor and speculation among K2 Vets who stayed in contact with each other. However, it was more than speculation for those veterans afflicted with a health condition or diagnosed with cancer. To those K2 Vets there was a very distinct line drawn from their medical condition to a tent city on the edge of an air base in Central Asia.

Veterans Affairs – Very Little Help

Many K2 Vets filed claims with the Veterans Administration (VA) – some with a variety of health concerns. Many of the health concerns could not be directly linked to K2 – even though the veteran certainly had some strong opinions on that topic. For many veterans, dealing with the VA is problematic. A typical retiree with 25 years’ service in the infantry will experience a host of medical issues that develop over time. A bad back, bad knees, traumatic head injuries, and so on. The dilemma is the ‘documentation’ that ties the injury to a specific event in the service. The same can be said about a cancer that develops years after exposure to radiation or chemical agents. How does a K2 Vet with a health condition link it to a nine-month deployment spent in a chemical wasteland years ago?

A Movement Grows

What slowly became obvious to K2 Vets was that fact that many of their colleagues who worked with them at K2 were ill or dying off. It took a lot of years for the K2 Vets to finally come together and organize themselves. Certainly, on an individual basis or as part of a small group, efforts were made, but these were isolated and not tied together in a larger movement.

News Articles Highlighting the Issue. However, things have changed and the K2 Vets are getting organized. In December 2019 Tara Copp, a journalist for McClatchy News Agency, began running a series of stories about the cancer rate of K2 Vets. Her stories were picked up by other news agencies. The story began getting some traction. Other news outlets soon published their own articles. Links to these articles can be found under References: below.

K2 Vets Facebook Group. Some K2 Vets got together and decided to establish a Facebook group for K2 Vets. The membership of this Facebook group – K2 Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan Radiation and Toxic Exposures Group – grew quickly in the past several months. Friends starting inviting friends to the group. It now has thousands of members. Stories were shared about who died, who was sick, and the current frustration with the Veterans Administration. Pictures were posted of the ‘poo’ trenches, green pools of water, flooded tent areas, and chemical warning signs. The administrators of the group provided reference documents for detailing the issue. A survey form was posted encouraging K2 Vets to complete – so that a database could be populated with information that would provide a more informative picture of the K2 problem.

National Attention. As a result of the Facebook page, the news reports, veterans contacting their congressional representatives, and other factors – the K2 Vets are receiving notice and becoming more organized. As a group they are sending letters to congressional representatives and offering tips to fellow veterans for dealing with the VA. K2 Veterans have been meeting with congressional committees in Washington to raise awareness of this issue.


Stronghold Freedom Foundation. The founders of the K2 Facebook group and other activists have come together to form the Stronghold Freedom Foundation. The name that the U.S. gave Karshi-Khanabad camp during Operation Enduring Freedom was Camp Stronghold Freedom. The mission of the “. . . Stronghold Freedom Foundation is to utilize awareness and partnerships to serve those who were exposed to toxic conditions while deployed in the service of our country.” The SFF is a legal, non-profit organization. The Stronghold Freedom Foundation can be found on Facebook.

VA Response

The Veterans Administration’s response to claims by veterans about illness related to K2 has been dismal. Most claims filed at local VA locations were dismissed, stonewalled, or lost in the passage of time. In the bigger picture – in Washington – the VA has not done much better. A recent statement in January 2020 by a spokeswoman for the Veterans Administration, Ms. Susan Carter, said:

“The limitations of self-reported surveys are well documented in the medical research community, but the VA will work with the Department of Defense to study this issue further as new empirical data becomes available.”

While Ms. Carter alluded to the necessity of empirical data, she neglected to describe who would generate it and when it would be become available. Her response was viewed by K2 veterans as just another example of the VA dismissing and downplaying the problem. The response of the Veteran’s community was immediate. Many Veterans are writing letters to the VA with their concerns about VA avoidance on the topic. Most have not received responses.

During a recent press conference (5 Feb 2020) the head of the Veterans Administration was questioned about the issue and he provided a quick response. He used some reassuring phrases such as: ‘come forward’, ‘come see us’, ‘file a claim’, ‘this is not your grandfather’s VA’, and more. But reassuring words are worthless without the action that goes with it. His statements put the burden on the veteran to take action – by once again filing a claim with the VA. [2]

The Veterans Affairs has denied K2 veterans service connection of their illnesses to deployment at K2. This affects the veteran’s disability ratings, medical services, and support that the VA provides to the K2 vets.

The K2 berms were constructed from dirt top soil within the camp. When
the wind picked up, dust from the berms was airborne throughout the camp.
(photo provided by CSM Ret Jose Silva)

Veterans want more on this issue. They want action at the national level. The VA should reach out to the Department of Defense and put some effort into identifying those veterans who served at K2. The VA and DOD should work together to develop the ‘empirical data’ concerning the contaminants at K2 and the subsequent health benefits suffered by K2 vets. The military does a good job of monitoring the health of current military personnel. However, those personnel who departed the service shortly after their tour at K2 are not monitored by the VA or military. In addition, the great number of National Guard and Reserve service members who served at K2 are not monitored as well. The VA should reach out to these ‘forgotten vets’ to notify them of possible health repercussions associated with service at K2 and to inquire as to their current health status. There is so much more that the VA could do than encourage the individual veteran to ‘file another claim’.

Congressional Action

Many Veterans are calling or writing letters to their Congressional delegations. Some Veterans are getting ‘polite’ responses thanking them for their question and reassuring them that the Veterans concerns are ‘at the top of my list’. Other Congressional representatives are promising action. A few have even taken action and have called or wrote letters to the Veterans Administration and Department of Defense on the topic.

K2 is a unique situation, compared to Agent Orange and burn pits, in that there is a very specific and clearly identifiable population (7000+ personnel) who occupied a very small piece of real estate for a clearly defined period of time (2001 – 2005). The VA has absolutely no excuse for not already notifying the service members who served at K2 that they may have been exposed to certain hazards. The onus should not be on the veterans, some of whom have not and will not receive any pertinent notification, to close the loop on this issue. [3]

What Can K2 Veterans Do?

One of the first actions a K2 Vet should take is to complete the health survey on the K2 Facebook group. This is a private group and to belong you need to be vetted. Once in the group, take the survey.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/174401532675073/

As the head of the Veterans Administration said, go back to the VA and file or refile a claim. Surely the VA is addressing the issue internally, memos have been sent to all, and VA personnel in the local clinics will now be aware of the K2 cancer incidence situation. At least one would hope this has happened.

One K2 Vet who found he had cancer within months of returning from a long deployment to K2 has some tips for K2 Vets. It is an informal yet informative info paper on how to deal with the VA. [4]

Address your concerns with the Veterans Administration at the national level as well. The more pressure put on the VA the more likely they are to respond. Letters should be professional and detailed. [5]

Contact your Congressional representative. The more exposure Congress has on the issue the more likely ‘veteran friendly’ Congressional staffers and representatives will get involved. This will encourage Congress to apply pressure to the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense to take action.

Lessons Observed for DOD

There are some enormous lessons that the Department of Defense should have learned from the K2 debacle – particularly as they relate to establishing a lodgment where US forces are compelled to occupy facilities that might be contaminated. Everyone who deployed to K2 understood the necessity of the mission and the risks it entailed. Despite this, it is clear that DoD failed to mitigate the risks early on, and what little they did (putting a layer of dirt on top of contaminants) offered scarce protection to future occupants.

Flooding at K2 Tent Camp. The entire camp was covered with stones and
gravel to ‘cap’ the contaminated ground. However, when rain or flooding
occurred the contaminants would rise to the surface and spread.
(photo provided by CSM Ret Jose Silva)

The DoD was aware of the serious environmental (radiation, chemical, and hazardous waste products) at K2. There are a number of unclassified and classified documents, memos, and studies about this issue. It was well-known that personnel at K2 were living in an environment where they were exposed to these hazards present in the air, dirt, dust, and water. The K2 vets were continually exposed to these dangers through skin contact, inhalation, and ingestion.

Strategic planners, once they were made aware of the existing hazards, should have recommended that K2 be occupied only long enough to meet the initial contingency requirements. K2 should have been occupied with a minimal footprint. Housing and work areas should have been relocated on hardstand surfaces. The base should have been displaced to another location as quickly as possible.

K2 was a huge place and there was plenty of other real estate with existing facilities, taxiways, parking areas, etc. available. One lesson that DoD should take from this is that there should be a rapid deployment assessment team, as part of an advance party, capable of executing a relatively thorough environmental assessment to discover hazards that may exist before we put troops on the ground. Granted, the fall of 2001 was hectic, and the mission had priority. But at some point, as the months went on, the welfare of the troops should have become a concern.

Possible alternative sites for a northern logistics hub
included Mazar-e-Sharif, Konduz, and Termez.

There were other suitable locations that could have been used as a northern logistics hub once initial contingency operations were complete. If not in 2001, then certainly as time went on in 2002 or 2003. The operations at K2 probably could have been displaced to Termez Airfield (just across the river from Afghanistan), where the Germans set up their logistics hub and operated C-130s. Another location could have been Mazer-e-Sharif Airport in northern Afghanistan where the Jordanians established a hospital early on in the conflict. MeS is currently the location of Train, Advise, and Assist Command – North where over a thousand Europeans are based at Camp Marmal on the MeS runway. Another option was Konduz Airport in northern Afghanistan.

Clearly, these other facilities would have likely required considerable development to expand their capabilities, but the US also spent years (and millions of dollars) developing K2 as a power projection hub for Afghanistan and Central Asia.

However, the above paragraphs are history. They represent a ‘lesson observed’ if not a ‘lesson learned’. But it is not too late for the Department of Defense to take action. DoD should be coordinating with the Veterans Administration to do the right thing for the K2 veterans.

What Happens Now?

The Veterans Administration is staffed with caring and competent people – for the most part. But it is a huge bureaucracy that moves slowly. Hopefully the growing movement of K2 Vets will not get discouraged and will continue the fight. It is time for Congress to become more involved. The Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense need to make this veteran’s issue a priority and work together to come up with some solutions.



Footnotes:

[1] This combat action was depicted in the 2018 movie named 12 Strong about a Green Beret team that infiltrated by helicopter (from K2) into northern Afghanistan to link up with the Northern Alliance and defeat the Taliban. See “Movie – 12 Strong – the Horsemen of Northern Afghanistan”, SOF News, October 17, 2017.
https://sof.news/movies/12-strong/

[2] Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie says he is aware of the reports and is working with the Department of Defense to address the issue. At a press conference the head of the VA stated that Veterans should “come to the VA and file a claim.” Video by Tara Copp, posted by McClatchy Washington Bureau, February 5, 2020, 2 minutes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVbXVWJ8R2A

[3] If Ford Motor Company can figure out how to notify the 4th owner of a 2006 Ford Ranger that his / her passenger air bag is defective and it needs to be serviced under a recall – then the VA and DOD should be able to figure out how to contact a veteran who served at K2.

[4] See tips on how to interact with the VA by LTC (Ret) Mike Jenne, February 2020.
https://sof.news/pubs/Tips-Filing-VA-Claim-Related-K2-Mike-Jenne-7Feb2020.pdf

[5] One example of a letter by a K2 Vet is by LTC (Ret) Mike Jenne and is part of this recent news article by SOF News. See “K2 Veterans Experiencing High Cancer Rate – VA Nonrespondent”, SOF News, February 5, 2020.
https://sof.news/veterans/k2-vets-cancer/


McClatchy News Stories about K2:

February 5, 2020, by Tara Copp, “Ready to Help: VA asks sick veterans from toxic ‘black goo’ base to come forward’.
https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/national-security/article239990688.html

February 3, 2020, by Tara Copp, “Toxic ‘black goo’ base used by U.S. had enriched uranium. More veterans report cancer.”
https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/national-security/article239856133.html

December 19, 2019, by Tara Copp, “Cancers strike veterans who deployed to Uzbek base where black goo oozed, ponds glowed”.
https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/national-security/article238510218.html


Recent News Stories about K2:

February 14, 2020, “K2 veterans demand investigation into deadly exposure: ‘Congress needs to act’”, by Shoshana Dubnow, ABC News. Documents show the Defense Department was aware of radioactive uranium on base.
https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/k2-veterans-demand-investigation-deadly-exposure-congress-act/story?id=68807933

January 15, 2020, “Congress probes American cancers at Uzbekistan base”, Eurasia Net.
https://eurasianet.org/congress-probes-american-cancers-at-uzbekistan-base

January 27, 2020, by Angie Ricono, “Soldiers allege cancers and a cover-up at US military base”, KCTV News.
https://www.kctv5.com/news/investigations/soldiers-allege-cancers-and-a-cover-up-at-us-military/article_bfc63a7a-416f-11ea-bd93-f35cc754cf53.html


Historical News Stories about K2:

June 10, 2002, by Carol J. Williams, “Traces of Nerve Gas Found at Uzbek Base Used by U.S.”, Los Angeles Times.
https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-jun-10-fg-badgas10-story.html


About the Author: The author’s first Afghanistan tour was in 2002 to 2003. While there, he visited K2 on a very limited basis for some coordination meetings. Several of his colleagues, unit members who were based at K2 for many months, were diagnosed with cancer – some have died. The latest funeral the author attended was in November 2019 for a K2 Vet. The K2 Vet was a former SF teammate who retired with 30 years Special Forces service and who was based at K2 for 9 months in 2002 – 2003. He died after having fought a brave battle with cancer for several years.


About John Friberg 155 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.