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K2 veterans demand answers from the Pentagon about the toxins they were exposed to

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

In the early years of the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military relied heavily on an airbase in Uzbekistan that was known as K2. K2 is now known for another reason - toxic exposure. Veterans who served there have reported rare diseases or cancers, and many have died. Now they're demanding answers from the Pentagon, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: For 20 years now, Kim Brooks has been fighting a war she never signed up for.

KIM BROOKS: My husband, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Brooks, was a 1989 West Point graduate.

LAWRENCE: They married the next year and had four children by the time 9/11 happened. Tim deployed to a base called Karshi-Khanabad - K2 - in Uzbekistan near the Afghan border. Troops there mentioned irritating dust and strange chemicals seeping up through the ground. Tim came home, and soon after, he started hearing rumors about uranium and other toxins. A year later, he had a seizure at a command ceremony as he was preparing to deploy to Iraq. At the hospital, the news wasn't good - brain cancer.

BROOKS: The doctor tells us that Tim has a stage 3 astrocytoma, and it's aggressive, and he has probably 11 months max to live. You know, we make it out to the parking lot, and Tim collapses on the ground in tears, sobbing. So he's 6-foot-5. He's on the ground, and he's sobbing.

LAWRENCE: Tim beat the prediction by a month. He died a year later, still on active duty with the Army. Of their four children, one went to West Point and later Iraq. Another is now a lawyer at the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which helped file a lawsuit this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

STEVE NELSON: I'm the director of government affairs and a board member for the Stronghold Freedom Foundation. I would like to thank Senator Blumenthal for your continued support and being here today. I would also like to thank the CVLC for hosting us today and helping us in our journey.

LAWRENCE: Steve Nelson, with the Stronghold Freedom Foundation, spoke at a press conference announcing the suit brought because the Pentagon has not answered a freedom of information request, a FOIA.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NELSON: This FOIA litigation seeks to force the government to provide a list of the toxins it discovered and documented at K2. This information is being inexplicably and shamefully withheld.

LAWRENCE: The Pentagon referred NPR's query to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment on why this information isn't being released. Fifteen thousand vets served at K2. Hundreds of them say they're sick, but they can't even tell doctors what to treat them for until they know what was contaminating the base.

MARK JACKSON: When I was there, some dudes came off a C-17 wearing moon suits, carrying Geiger counters, and I was in running shorts and a T-shirt.

LAWRENCE: Mark Jackson served four combat tours. He spoke to me last week, and then he rushed himself to the emergency room when the sepsis in one of his elbows burst. He's got severe osteoporosis, anemia, and his thyroid failed and was removed.

JACKSON: I have had surgery four times in the past six months, and I consider myself lucky because it's not cancer.

LAWRENCE: Jackson's service was recognized with a Bronze Star medal pinned on by Lloyd Austin, then a general, now Secretary of Defense. Jackson now wants Secretary Austin to recognize him again and all of the other K2 veterans by releasing the information they need to survive.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.