By Mike Jenne
Karshi-Khanabad Airfield (K2) was a base in southern Uzbekistan used by the 5th Special Forces Group (supported by other Army and service units) to launch Special Forces teams into Afghanistan during the initial invasion in the fall of 2001. K2 – as it is usually referred to – would be a base of many U.S. military units that would support the subsequent DOD efforts in Afghanistan. From 2001 to 2005 K2 was a location where thousands of U.S. service members were stationed. A significant number of these service members – most now retired or having left the service – are ill or have died from cancer. Recent efforts to reach out to the Veterans Administration on this issue have been met with unsatisfactory results.
Mike Jenne, a retired Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel, wrote a letter to Veterans Administration Spokeswoman, Ms. Susan Carter, to discuss her recent statement to the media regarding K2 Vets.
I recently read your statement about K2 (Karshi-Khanabad Airfield, Uzbekistan) in which you said “The limitations of self-reported surveys are well documented in the medical research community, but VA will work with the Department of Defense to study this issue further as new empirical data becomes available.” Just so you’re aware, the reason that K2 vets are resorting to “self-reported surveys” is because the vast majority of them have run entirely out of options and are desperate for the VA and DoD to compare notes to determine what is causing the cancers and other ailments that are killing them.
Frankly, I’m really having a tough time comprehending why the VA has not yet compiled volumes of “empirical data” concerning the contaminants at K2 and the subsequent health effects suffered by K2 vets. What happened at K2 is unlike what happened with the situation with Agent Orange, where a toxic defoliant was sprayed over thousands of square miles in Southeast Asia. It’s also unlike the toxic burn pits in Iraq and elsewhere, where the plume hazards from fires might impact large populations for many miles downwind. No, K2 was a unique situation in which a finite number (7000+) of personnel occupied a relatively small but clearly defined Petri dish for a finite period of time (November 2001 to August 2005.) With that said, given that there is overwhelming evidence that the Department of Defense was clearly aware of the myriad hazards at K2 when the base was occupied in 2001 and that K2 vets were already getting sick and dying well before the US abandoned K2 in 2005, I cannot comprehend why in the ensuing FOURTEEN years that the VA has not coordinated with DoD to obtain detailed rosters of personnel who had rotated through K2, so that the VA could contact them to collect “empirical data” and conduct regular follow-ups.
The very fact that the VA, in concert with the DoD, has routinely failed to contact K2 vets about hazards and health effects speaks volumes. While DoD does a fairly good job of monitoring the health status of active duty personnel, they don’t pay nearly as much attention—if any—to those folks in the National Guard and Reserves when they are not mobilized, and do an even worse job of keeping up with the health status of individuals who have separated from the services.
Since it served primarily as a logistics hub, a sizeable percentage of the personnel assigned to K2 came from the Guard and Reserves, and many of those, especially those who have since separated or retired, have never been made aware of the hazards at K2 and the potential linkage to health effects they may be already suffering. My own case is a textbook example. Prior to deploying to K2 in August 2002, I underwent a complete pre-deployment physical at Fort Dix, NJ, in which my PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) was in normal range. Upon return, I underwent a post-deployment physical in June 2003 at Redstone Arsenal, AL, in which my PSA had jumped 2.6 points to 4.81 over the course of nine-month period. The nurse practitioner (NP) who counseled me after the physical stated that my elevated PSA was likely the result of an infection or other passing condition, and that I should have it rechecked in six months. I immediately went to have it rechecked after I was demobilized. I was eventually diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer in October 2003. Had I followed the Army NP’s guidance, I would be dead now. I don’t bear her any ill will, though, because I am confident that she advised me based on existing Army protocols.
Had the DoD done its job properly, my medical records (as well as everyone else who served at K2) should have been flagged with some “heads up” indication about the hazards I was exposed to at K2, so the NP would have been aware of underlying issues, and I probably should have been retained on active duty to undergo additional screening and treatment. As it was, I was NEVER officially notified about the hazards at K2, nor was I ever notified to contact the VA concerning my cancer, even though I was still in the National Guard (until 2016) and even though my chain of command was clearly aware that I had been diagnosed with cancer almost immediately after returning from K2.
Ironically, in a casual conversation with a friend in 2009, I found out that the VA had established a 1-800 number specifically for K2 vets and called it. I also suspected that there were other K2 vets who had not been notified, especially the support elements (such as our Air National Guard Special Operations Weather Team) that deployed with us; I called several of them, and quickly determined that my suspicions were correct. Additionally, at least four personnel (that I am aware of) out of my unit have already died of cancer; of those, I can confidently say that at least one—SFC William Sanderson, who died of kidney cancer less than a month after he was diagnosed—is not reflected in the VA’s “empirical data.”
The bottom line is this: If you VA folks are serious about collecting “empirical data” about K2 vets, then compel the DoD (and other agencies) to provide detailed information about the hazards present at K2 as well as detailed rosters of the 7000+ personnel who rotated through there, and then actually contact those vets (those who are still living) to determine what health effects they have suffered and/or are currently suffering.
While I’m making suggestions, here are two more. Even though they don’t fall within your purview and mandate, the VA should also contact the few hundred civilian personnel (government employees, KBR contractors, etc.) who worked at K2 to assess their health impacts as well, which should provide a more realistic picture of the hazards and subsequent health effects. Finally, you might consider posting a detailed interactive map (showing tents, work areas, MWR facilities, etc.) of K2 to gather geospatial data about where (on K2) respondents spent most of their time. At a minimum, they should be able to identify specifically where they slept, worked and routinely pulled guard duty. Once you do this, and finally initiate the years-late process of gathering “empirical data,” I think you will probably start seeing clusters and other relevant data points.
In closing, while I am very aware that the VA has some exceptionally dedicated health workers, I regret that I don’t have the words to adequately describe how much I despise the smug and callous bureaucrats of the VA. If you ever wonder why so many despondent vets kill themselves, including those who take their own lives in the parking lots of VA facilities, you need not spend decades collecting “empirical data” and executing elaborate studies; all you need do is look in the mirror. In the years that I have been visiting VA facilities, I have noticed that a portrait of the current President—in my case, Bush, Obama and Trump—is prominently displayed in every lobby. If I had my way, these would all be replaced by a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, with an inscription underneath that would simply read “Just do the damned job I gave you.”
Lieutenant Colonel, Special Forces, Retired
Alabama Army National Guard
Map: Derived from CIA (2002).
About the author: Mike Jenne is a writer who served as an NCO and officer with the U.S. Army Rangers and Army Special Forces for 25 years. He deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2002-2003 based at K2 with time spent in Afghanistan as well.