Defense spending bill directs Pentagon to study health impacts of toxic exposure
WASHINGTON — A measure that aims to kickstart medical studies of veterans who served at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, known as K2, and were exposed to multiple cancer-causing toxins, has made it into the final 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
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. U.S. forces established Camp Stronghold Freedom at K2 in Uzbekistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and it was used to support combat missions from 2001 to 2005.
Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced the measure in August.
Blackburn said the effort is a critical first step to getting care to the veterans who served there. Former service members who spent time at K2 testified on Capitol Hill in February that they were aware of at least 400 individuals diagnosed with cancers who served at the base. They said at least 30 have died.
Many veterans advocates and lawmakers, including Blackburn, have said toxic exposure could be the post-9/11 generation’s Agent Orange and the government cannot take decades to respond and must issue health care and compensation now to those affected.
“One of the lessons of Agent Orange was [the Defense Department] did not pay attention early enough in the process,” Blackburn said. “You still have different trials and studies going on ... but we need to pay attention to this now.”
The measure would also allow those veterans eligible to contribute to the Department of Veterans Affairs 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. The legislation also would grant the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine access to any studies conducted by the VA and Pentagon on K2 veterans.
VA officials remain unconvinced of toxic exposure’s long-term health impact on veterans. Some lawmakers and advocates anticipate a health care effort that could take years.
The VA is conducting its own study that could take up to 18 months to complete. Dr. Patricia Hastings, chief consultant for post-deployment health services at the VA, told lawmakers at a hearing on the matter last month that the department is working with a small staff to conduct the study.
Lawmakers at the hearing agreed with Hastings that conclusive research is needed, but the evidence is increasing that young veterans became sick after deploying to K2. More so, thousands of veterans have been exposed to burn pits throughout the world, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan, and the VA has denied nearly 78% of those claims.
Blackburn said she is hopeful the study authorized in the legislation could supplement whatever data that the VA finds and add to the effort to expand access to care for veterans.
“What this will do is put this front and center,” she said, noting this is the beginning of what could be a drawn-out legislative effort to deliver care to veterans suffering from toxic exposure. “We’re going to continue working on this as we learn more from the study and learn about the next step to take.”
Blackburn said recent attention from Congress and the media has given the issue momentum. It gained more public attention after comedian Jon Stewart started to lead the lobbying effort to get care to veterans suffering from illnesses linked to toxic exposure. Some veterans advocates have said they believe toxic exposure is likely to be a top issue in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration since he believes his son Beau Biden’s brain cancer was caused by burn pit exposure in Iraq when he deployed there with the Delaware National Guard.
But President Donald Trump has made multiple threats for other reasons to veto the NDAA, which sets funding and policies for the Defense Department. He has made threats to block the defense spending bill unless it repeals Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, calling it a “liability shielding gift” to “big tech.” Section 230 provides legal protection for technology companies over content from users and third parties.
Trump has made similar veto threats of the NDAA over a measure to rename military bases that honor Confederate generals.
Congress is moving forward with the NDAA despite Trump’s demands. The House and Senate each passed their earlier versions of the defense bill with a veto-proof majority.