Senators introduce bill to aid veterans who were exposed to cancer-causing toxins at 'K2'
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 5, 2020
WASHINGTON — A group of senators introduced legislation Tuesday that would kickstart medical studies of veterans who served at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, known as K2, and were exposed to multiple cancer-causing toxins.
Veterans assigned to the post in southeastern Uzbekistan described a toxic environment there in the early 2000s, with pond water that glowed green and black sludge that oozed from the ground. Some veterans assigned to K2 testified to Congress in February, saying they were aware of hundreds of cases of cancer among K2 veterans. Thirty people have died, they said.
The Defense Department shared documents with Congress in July that revealed the Pentagon knew troops there were exposed to hazards. The Soviet base contained chemical weapons, enriched uranium and soil saturated with fuels and other solvents that formed a “black goo,” documents from 2001, 2002 and 2004 show.
Though there is mounting evidence to prove toxic exposure, the veterans remain ineligible for Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.
Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., who introduced the bill, said their legislation is the first step toward securing benefits.
The bill “lays the groundwork for ensuring that service members who were deployed to K2 in Uzbekistan are covered and compensated for exposure to toxic substances at the base,” Baldwin said.
The K2 Veterans Toxic Exposure Accountability Act of 2020 would require the Pentagon to conduct a study of illnesses and deaths among veterans stationed at K2. The U.S. established Camp Stronghold Freedom at K2 after the 9/11 attacks, and it was used to support combat missions from 2001 to 2005.
It also would make those veterans eligible for the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. The registry, created in 2014, allows service members to document their exposure and illnesses and provide data to the agency.
Last, the legislation would grant the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine access to any studies conducted by the VA and Pentagon on K2 veterans.
Reps. Mark Green, R-Tenn., and Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., introduced companion legislation in the House. Their measure was attached to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act.
“Congress cannot afford to wait,” Green said in a statement. “It is far past time to hold the DOD and VA accountable and ensure these courageous veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country receive the care they deserve.”
The VA confirmed in April that it would study health trends among the thousands of K2 veterans. The department told Stars and Stripes last month that it would be over a year until the agency releases any initial results.