WASHINGTON, D.C. — In one of his final acts in office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order late Tuesday directing the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct a study of all veterans who served at a toxic base in Uzbekistan after 9/11, a step toward making it easier for their medical costs to be covered.
In December 2019, McClatchy exclusively reported about hundreds of U.S. special forces and other military troops who were deployed to Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who were diagnosed with cancer after serving there.
The former Soviet base, known as “K2,” was riddled with toxic dangers. Chemical weapons remnants and low-level processed uranium remained in the soil. Pools of solvents that had polluted the grounds for years formed a “black goo” at soldiers’ feet when they walked.
The first K2 veteran came forward in November 2019, after reading about rising veterans’ cancers in McClatchy’s Kansas City Star. By January, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform had announced it was launching an investigation into the K2 cancers, which numbered in the hundreds.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s hard to actually put it into words what it feels like,” said Kim Brooks, whose husband Tim was one of the first K2 veterans to die of cancer in 2004 at age 36.
The executive order requires the VA and Department of Defense to identify which toxins were found at K2, where on the base they were found and which service members may have been exposed to them.
It also calls for a study similar to those required in the annual funding bills for the Department of Defense and VA that Congress passed last year, to determine “any health consequences” that may be tied to the toxins at K2, to make decisions on which of those health conditions should be automatically covered by the VA.
“After a two-decade wait for action, we are encouraged by K2’s recognition by the federal government,” said retired Master Sgt. Paul Widener, who served at K2 for multiple deployments and who launched a private Facebook group in 2012 to try and help all the K2 veterans who were ill.
K2 veterans had been aware that an executive order was being considered by Trump after Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who had also served at K2, made it a priority to help the other veterans who were based there.
“Every day, we’ve been like, is today the day he is going to sign it? And here we are,” Brooks said, on the last night of Trump’s presidency.
News of the executive order made the day even more poignant for Brooks, who had heard from her son earlier in the morning that his Army unit had safely departed Iraq and was now in Kuwait.
As more service members with neurological or reproductive issues after serving at K2 spoke publicly, the VA’s response evolved from saying that the premise that K2 was connected to cancers was “false,” to asking K2 veterans to come forward. Then came legislation and now the executive order directing the VA to study those veterans.
“It feels like a reckoning,” Brooks said.