National Security Subcommittee Releases Newly Declassified Documents Revealing How Servicemembers Were Exposed to Multiple Toxic Hazards on Karshi-Khanabad Airbase
Washington, D.C. (July 9, 2020)—Today, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, and Republican Committee Member Rep. Mark Green released newly declassified Department of Defense (DOD) documents, which detail multiple hazards and toxins that U.S. servicemembers were exposed to while deployed to Camp Stronghold Freedom at Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Air Base in Uzbekistan between 2001 and 2005.
DOD provided the classified 2001, 2002, and 2004 K2 environmental hazard surveys and health risk assessments to the Subcommittee in March 2020. Chairman Lynch and Rep. Green subsequently requested that DOD declassify the assessments to help inform the health care decisions of veterans and servicemembers who deployed to K2.
“The men and women who deployed to Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Airbase in southern Uzbekistan were among the first boots on the ground after the September 11, 2001, attacks. It is deeply troubling that despite clear evidence they were exposed to toxic and radioactive materials, these courageous veterans and their families are being denied treatment and benefits for their service-connected disabilities, which include cancer and other devastating health conditions,” Chairman Lynch said. “It is long overdue for our government to acknowledge our responsibility to these veterans and their families. Our Subcommittee is releasing these documents today to help K2 veterans and servicemembers better understand what they may have been exposed to while serving at K2 and to help them make informed healthcare decisions. We remain committed to investigating toxic exposures at K2 and continuing our critical oversight work to ensure our K2 heroes receive the healthcare they need and the disability benefits they have earned.”
“These declassified documents point to a mounting body of evidence that our troops who served at K2 Air Base in Uzbekistan were exposed to highly toxic chemicals and radioactive materials,” Congressman Green said. “K2 veterans’ cancer rates are 5 times higher than those of counterparts who served elsewhere, and many are ineligible for health benefits despite the direct service connection of their illnesses. Congress cannot afford to wait. Placing these documents in the hands of the public is a great step forward to hold the DOD and VA accountable and gain justice for these brave veterans who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
“I applaud Subcommittee Chairman Lynch and Congressman Green on their bipartisan investigation to ensure that K2 veterans and their families receive the information and health care that they need,” Chairwoman Maloney said. “The courageous Americans who served at K2 put their lives on the line to protect our country, and for years their government has denied them answers. The Oversight Committee will continue to seek justice on behalf of our K2 heroes and work to ensure that our servicemembers and veterans are appropriately compensated for their sacrifice.”
“We thank Reps. Green and Lynch for introducing the K2 Veterans Toxic Exposure Accountability Act of 2020. This comprehensive legislation addresses K2 veteran health concerns, now, upon passage,” Paul Widener said. “We urge Congress to act now. Do the right thing for the 10,100 K2 veterans who laid their health and lives upon the altar of freedom.”
“Today’s announcement regarding the release by the DoD of previously classified information is the beginning of determining what happened to our bodies during and after our service at K2,” Mark Jackson said. “K2 was a crime scene in need of an investigation. The first step in any investigation is gathering evidence. We are now ready to take those first steps, nearly 18 years after the first soldiers’ boots were on the ground in Uzbekistan. There is still much to find, much to determine, and many lives to be saved.”
“Today’s release is a step forward, but we cannot stop here – K2 veterans are owed a full investigation of their exposure so that they can protect their health and access the benefits they deserve,” Kim Brooks said.
Below is summary of findings based on the Subcommittee’s review of the declassified documents provided by DOD.
Servicemembers were exposed to multiple toxic hazards while at K2:
- Petrochemical Contamination and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): According to the documents, servicemembers were likely exposed to a variety of hazardous petrochemicals and VOCs while at K2, including jet fuel and kerosene. During subsurface soil testing in 2001, “[e]levated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) were detected at numerous locations throughout Stronghold Freedom, including tent city, eastern expansion area (Site 3), and adjacent to the aircraft maintenance facility.” A declassified November 2001 Operational Health Risk Assessment found that “[i]nhalation of vapors from exposed, subsurface fuel contaminated soils could potentially cause adverse health effects to personnel at Stronghold Freedom if sufficient exposure circumstances occur.” As a result, the assessment recommended: “Prohibit digging into soil contaminated with jet fuel.”
- Particulate Matter 10 (PM10) and Tetrachloroethylene: A June 2002 Operational Health Risk Assessment estimated that “between 50% and 75% of personnel at Stronghold Freedom will be exposed to elevated levels of compounds in air,” and a September 2004 health assessment described the probability of exposure to PM10 levels as “frequent.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest [health] problems, because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.”
A few air samples also reported elevated levels of tetrachloroethylene. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, “Studies in humans suggest that exposure to tetrachloroethylene might lead to a higher risk of getting bladder cancer, multiple myeloma, or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
- Burn Pits: On September 1 and 2, 2004, a visual site inspection identified multiple open fires burning near K2: “The smell of burning plastic was evident, and ash was noted blowing from the fire site over the ASP [ammunition supply point].” Although K2 is not currently included in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) burn-pit registry, according to the VA, “Toxins in burn pit smoke may affect the skin, eyes, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, gastrointestinal tract and internal organs.”
“Up to 100%” of units assigned to K2 potentially exposed to radiation:
- According to a September 2004 health assessment, the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine (USACHPPM) found that, although “less than 10% of personnel will experience [radiation] exposures above background” at Camp Stronghold Freedom, “the potential for daily contact with radiation exists for up to 100% of the assigned units.” While the Operational Risk Management risk of radiation was assessed to be “low,” the report acknowledged it made this assessment with “low confidence … due to the highly variable nature of air concentrations, the lack of detailed information regarding true soldier exposures, the limited temporal scope of the available sampling data, and the limited availability of data on health effects due to the low-level radiation exposure.”
- A former missile site (“Site 1”), located adjacent to Stronghold Freedom’s “tent city,” was found to contain small pieces of depleted uranium in 2001, and external radiation measurements in 2002 detected radiation levels four times above background. Although Site 1 was declared “off-limits” in November 2001, by 2002, “erosion and flooding” had “caused changes to the landscape,” but no additional radiation was detected beyond Site 1.
Military leaders were supposed to communicate with K2 servicemembers about potential health risks:
- A September 2004 inspection by USACHPPM recommended: “Continue aggressive health risk communication efforts on the environmental threats identified on Stronghold Freedom to ensure personnel are aware of actual threats and appropriate countermeasures. Regular risk communication efforts will compensate for personnel turnover and provide deployed personnel with facts regarding their health, environmental health threats, and efforts undertaken to mitigate these health threats.”
- According to U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Paul Widener, Jr. (ret.), who testified before the Subcommittee on February 27, 2020, and served at K2: “K2 members were told repeatedly that no significant risk from hazards existed. … There were no briefings on toxic exposures, no protective equipment recommended, issued, or employed.”
On January 13, 2020, Chairwoman Maloney and Subcommittee Chairman Lynch sent letters to the Department of Defense (DOD) and VA requesting information about press reports that U.S. servicemembers and special operations forces who deployed to K2 after September 11, 2001, were reportedly exposed to cancer-causing hazards.
On February 27, 2020, the Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing with two veterans who were previously deployed to K2 and have each suffered from cancer, as well as the spouse of another K2 veteran.
That same day, Chairman Lynch and Rep. Green introduced H.R. 5957, the K2 Veterans Toxic Exposure Accountability Act of 2020, which directs the Secretary of Defense to assess the toxic exposure of American military servicemembers deployed to K2 from 2001 to 2005 and address the health conditions caused by this exposure.
On March 4, 2020, Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairman Lynch, then-National Security Subcommittee Ranking Member Jody B. Hice, Rep. Green, and former Rep. Mark Meadows sent letters to DOD and VA to press both agencies for information as part of the Committee’s investigation.
On April 22, 2020, VA confirmed it is taking multiple steps to address the concerns of K2 servicemembers and veterans, including designing a new study to investigate health trends among K2 Veterans.
A fact sheet on the declassified K2 documents can be found here.
The declassified Department of Defense K2 assessments can be found below:
- Preliminary Industrial Hazard Assessment, November 2001
- Visual Site Inspection, 4 September 2004
- Updated Visual Site Inspection, 7 September 2004