HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Veterans' advocacy groups sued the U.S. Department of Defense on Monday seeking records of toxic conditions at an air base in Uzbekistan blamed for causing cancer and other illnesses among American troops who served there in support of the war in Afghanistan.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Connecticut accuses military officials of withholding information about hazardous materials — including uranium, chemical weapons and asbestos — that were on the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, known as K2, during U.S. operations there from 2001 to 2005.
The contaminants included pools of “black goo” that caused military service members to pass out, according to the lawsuit. At least around 15,800 troops served at the base, and personnel there became ill and died at higher-than-usual rates, the lawsuit says.
The legal filing seeks information about the toxic substances and troop exposures so that sickened veterans can obtain accurate medical diagnoses and treatment and healthy veterans can take any preventative actions available.
A spokesperson said Monday that the Pentagon could not comment because “the issue involves litigation.”
The lawsuit was announced during a news conference in New Haven at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Also suing is the Stronghold Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit group that includes K2 veterans and relatives. The groups are represented by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.
“These K2 victims have been living with this truth inside their bodies for over 20 years, and many died as that toxic truth took them to their early graves,” said Kim Brooks, a board member for the Stronghold Freedom Foundation. “Yet we still do not know exactly what lurked in the air and water and the earth at K2. We do not know because the government refuses to release the records of the toxins found at K2.”
Brooks' husband, Army Lt. Col. Timothy Brooks, from New Milford, Connecticut, died of a brain tumor in 2004, less than three years after serving at K2. He was 36.
She and others at the news conference, including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, called on the federal government to release information on the K2 contamination. The foundation said the Defense Department has not fully responded to document requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Years before the U.S. military used Karshi-Khanabad to support missions into Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, the base was occupied by the former Soviet military. U.S. officials said Soviet troops left behind contamination from a number of hazardous materials, including low-level radioactive depleted uranium from destroying missiles at the site as well as jet fuel.
Matt Erpelding, a K2 veteran and executive director of the Stronghold Freedom Foundation, said a 2015 preliminary study by the Army found that K2 veterans were five times more likely to develop cancer, compared with troops who deployed to other places. He said military personnel began showing an array of unexplained health conditions after arriving at the base.
Military officials have cautioned that the 2015 study is limited and not a definitive link between K2 service and illness. The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments say they are doing a more in-depth study.
No one has exact numbers on how many K2 veterans developed cancer and how many died from it.
Erpelding said at least 75 people who were at K2 and were members of the Stronghold Freedom Foundation died from 2012 to 2020, and another 10 died in the past eight months. In a 2020 survey of about 2,000 K2 veterans by the foundation, nearly 1,900 illnesses were reported, including 491 incidents of cancer. Some of those surveyed reported multiple illnesses.
Last year, President Joe Biden and Congress approved the PACT Act, which expanded VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances, including military members who served in Uzbekistan. A number of K2 veterans had said the VA wasn't covering their medical costs.
Blumenthal called on the Defense Department to release the information that the lawsuit plaintiffs are seeking.
“This document, this complaint, is a powerful story, a really compelling story, of our government’s neglect and disregard of our veterans,” he said at the news conference. “The United States government has a responsibility to provide information to these veterans so they can get the medical care that they need. That’s a basic, fundamental right.”
Associated Press writer Tara Copp in Washington contributed to this report.
Dave Collins, The Associated Press