WASHINGTON — A member of Congress at a hearing about a toxic base in Uzbekistan used by the U.S. military shortly after 9/11 revealed on Thursday that he was also deployed there and has been diagnosed with two cancers.
Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., served as an Army special operations flight surgeon with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and had deployed to Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, known as “K2.”
The congressman listening to testimony from veterans about their health problems after serving there, said he was one of them.
“I myself spent a little bit of time at K2 as well,” Green told the room of special operations veterans, congressional staff and other members of Congress. “I think many of the people in the room know that I have had colon cancer and thyroid cancer.”
“Who gets two primary cancers at the same time?” said Green. “Right? It’s just unheard of.”
The veterans testified at a House hearing about the base where radiation and chemical weapons contamination was documented. They said they suspect that toxic exposure is responsible for scores of deaths among their units and hundreds of reported cancers by service members who served there.
For almost 20 years, some veterans who served at K2 said they have faced denials when they sought to have their medical costs for cancers and other chronic illnesses covered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Two veterans and the spouse of a K2 veteran who died of brain cancer testified for the first time Thursday before the House Oversight and Reform national security subcommittee.
Since January, lawmakers on the committee have pressed the Defense Department and the VA to provide documentation about the toxic exposure when service members were deployed at the base from late 2001 to 2005.
“To date, DOD has yet to provide any of the documents we asked for, and instead told the committee it would provide a more detailed response in three months,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass, who is chairman of the subcommittee. “That’s three months that K2 veterans, including those suffering from cancer, will be kept waiting for answers.”
Lynch and Green earlier this week introduced the “K2 Veterans Toxic Exposure Accountability Act of 2020.” The bill would create a registry of veterans who served at K2 and would require the Defense Department to conduct a study on the toxic exposure that occurred there. Possibly most important to the hundreds of K2 veterans now facing cancers or chronic illnesses, the legislation could make it easier for those veterans to get their medical costs covered by the VA.
McClatchy has previously reported on and published documents showing that the Defense Department knew shortly after U.S. troops deployed there that the former Soviet base had contained chemical weapons, enriched uranium and soil saturated with fuels and other solvents that formed a “black goo.”
For years K2 veterans have turned to a private Facebook group for help. Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Widener started the Facebook group in 2012 to help Air Force veteran Tech Sgt. Mike West connect with other K2 veterans.
West, who had served with the 9th Special Operations Squadron, was seeking help in finding evidence to file a claim with the VA. West was diagnosed in 2010 with colon cancer, he died in 2013.
The group screens those who join for their K2 service and now has almost 3,700 members.
Of those, about 1,200 have filled out a health survey the group established to help Congress and the VA understand the scope of the illnesses. More than 400 of those K2 veterans have now reported cancer diagnoses. But the VA to date has rejected the group’s data.
That angers K2 veteran retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Scott Welsch.
Welsch was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014.
“The VA should be asking us for our data, instead of criticizing or downplaying our efforts,” Welsch said at the hearing.
Lynch said the committee would take action if the VA and Defense Department delayed further.
“If they’re resisting us, we’re going to have to create our own registry, basically within this committee, and as the evidence piles up, will be irrefutable at some point,” Lynch said.
Kim Brooks lost her husband Army Lt. Col. Timothy Brooks to brain cancer two years after he returned from K2. He died in 2004 at age 36.
Discovering how many other K2 families were facing cancer was “devastating,” she told the committee on Thursday.
“I never wanted to know I had others, if that makes any sense. I’ve never wanted it to be real,” she said, voice breaking, after the hearing.
Green, who was diagnosed with both cancers in 2015 but is currently cancer free, noted to the committee the rare circumstance of having a member of Congress affected by the very issue they were trying to solve.
“So in a sense, I have to declare a kind of conflict of interest in this, I guess,” Green said.
“But truth be known it shouldn’t happen to me, it shouldn’t happen to any of our warriors,” he said. “ Seven thousand warriors-plus spent time at K2. And it’s time we do something.”
©2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau - Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.