U.S. special operations forces who deployed to a military site in Uzbekistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks found pond water that glowed green, black goo oozing from the ground and signs warning “radiation hazard.”
Karshi-Khanabad, known as K2, was an old Soviet base leased by the United States from the Uzbek government just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because it was a few hundred miles from al Qaeda and Taliban targets in northern Afghanistan.
The base became a critical hub in the early days of the war to provide airdrops, medical evacuation and airstrike support to U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan.
But K2 was contaminated with chemical weapons remnants, radioactive processed uranium and other hazards, according to documents obtained by McClatchy.
At least 61 of the men and women who served at K2 had been diagnosed with cancer or died from the disease, according to a 2015 Army study on the base. But that number may not include the special operations forces deployed to K2, who were likely not counted due to the secrecy of their missions, the study reported.
As part of McClatchy’s continued investigation into the rising rates of cancers among Veterans, members of those special operations forces units who were based at K2 are speaking out for the first time because of the difficulty they have faced in getting the Department of Veterans Affairs to cover their medical costs.
“After returning from combat years later, we are all coming down with various forms of cancer that the [Department of Veterans Affairs] is refusing to acknowledge,” said retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Scott Welsch, a special operations military intelligence officer who deployed to K2 in October 2001. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014.
Some of those who served at K2 are about to submit a letter to Congress asking for help.
“Please come to our aid to assist us in dealing with these illnesses that have forever altered the courses of our lives and the lives of our families,” wrote retired Lt. Col. Omar Hamada, flight surgeon for the Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group, which went to K2 in 2002.
Hamada said nine of the unit’s approximately 50 soldiers who deployed to K2 have been diagnosed with cancer.
The Defense Department knew that K2 was toxic from the start, based on documents obtained by McClatchy that are being reported publicly for the first time.
After Uzbek workers who were preparing the grounds for arriving U.S. forces in October 2001 fell ill, U.S. Central Command directed an intelligence review of the hazards at the base.
“Ground contamination at Karshi-Khanabad Airfield poses health risks to U.S. forces deployed there,” said the classified report, dated Nov. 6, 2001, that was obtained by McClatchy.
That report found the “tent city” the military was building at K2 — including tents for sleeping, eating, showering and working — were “in some cases directly on top of soil that probably was contaminated” by four hazards.
First, there was a missile storage facility that had exploded in June 1993. “Ground contamination from the explosion, and subsequent expulsion of missile propellant throughout the area is very likely,” the report said.
Two other hazards listed were an abandoned fuel storage facility and an abandoned aircraft maintenance facility identified as the likely sources of the “black goo” which the report said “is most likely a combination of oils, hydraulic fluids, glues, paints, solvents and lubricants.”
The fourth hazard noted in the report was that the northeast corner of the tent city was likely affected by “runoff from a CW [chemical weapons] decontamination site” which had appeared on U.S. intelligence imagery in 1987.
A separate Army environmental health study of K2 in November 2001 found small areas of dirt contaminated with asbestos and “low level radioactive processed uranium, both from the destruction of Soviet missiles.”
As more personnel populated the base, it had to expand. Additional assessments were conducted, one found pools of solvents about 3 feet underground.
“Part of this area has already been fenced off by US forces as an expansion area,” a Nov. 15, 2001, document obtained by McClatchy said. “To call this site a landfill is an insult to landfills.”
The U.S. military jumped on using K2 because it had few other good options in the immediate response to 9/11, said former Army Reserve Capt. Ken Richards, who deployed to the base in 2002, and was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2009.
“There were a lot of good reasons to accept what they [the Uzbeks] gave us,” Richards said. “Safety was never an issue.”
“YOUR INQUIRY IS FALSE”
Years after their deployments, as K2 Veterans approached the Defense Department and the VA for help, they met a defense health establishment trained to doubt them.
“The most important messages to communicate are there were no K-2 exposures of health consequence,” instructs an undated three-page “Information for Health Care Staff” guide published by the Pentagon’s Deployment Health Clinical Center that was obtained by McClatchy.
“Some may believe they were exposed to dangerous chemicals and that they haven’t been told the truth,” the guide states. “Your reassurances may not lessen their level of concern.”
The guide emphasized that medical staff should show K2 Veterans respect for their service to the country, observing “It often helps rapport if you thank them for that service.”
The VA responded to a query by McClatchy on the number of cancers among the service members based at K2 with a statement saying, “the premise of your inquiry is false. There is no indication of increased cancer rates among Veterans who served at Karshi-Khanabad, which is why cancer is not a presumptive condition for Veterans who served in that area.”
That phrase — “presumptive condition” — can mean the difference between the service member paying the bill for cancer treatments out of their own pocket or having the cost covered by the VA.
A presumptive condition is any medical issue that the VA has accepted as likely connected to a Veteran’s military service.
McClatchy interviewed 15 former members of Air Force and Army special operations forces who served at K2, six of whom were diagnosed with cancer, and reviewed more than a dozen documents about the conditions at the base. McClatchy also interviewed two widows whose husbands were deployed to K2 and have died of cancer.
“We were doing a great thing” at K2, said retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Jeff Frisby, who deployed there in October 2001 with the 16th Special Operations Wing. “But then you look back on it and you almost feel kind of betrayed that there may be something going wrong, and nobody wants to help with it.”
In 2009, Army Master Sgt. Jeff Skinner found that the secrecy of his mission had limited what documents he could get to the VA. He was 39 and fighting stage 4 brain cancer.
“The VA continues to deny my claims. I am desperate,” Skinner wrote. “All of my savings and my spouse’s 401K have been dissolved.”
Skinner had deployed to K2 in 2002 with the 1st Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group and was asking the Army to release classified documents to the VA about his service at the Uzbek base.
Army special operations command got involved, and Skinner’s appeal was finally approved, said his widow Missy Skinner. But when she looked through his paperwork to see what changed the agency’s mind, she could not find anything that cited his deployment.
“Nothing about K2,” she said.
Skinner died in April 2017. He was 47.
By 2002, the Defense Department reported that K2’s contamination issues had been addressed by new soil and gravel overlays, caps on suspected vapor areas, and fencing.
“The contaminated area was covered with clean fill in November 2001, fenced and marked off-limits. It was determined that the uranium posed minimal health risk. The radiation hazard from this material is low,” a 2002 health assessment reported.
Veterans say their experiences on the ground do not mesh with that assessment.
“There was no warning for us. We just went in and we just dug,” said retired Master Sgt. Kliengsak Nimpchaimanatham. He flew into K2 about three weeks after 9/11 with the Air Force 1st Special Operations Wing, 16th Civil Engineering Squadron.
Nimpchaimanatham’s team was tasked with digging deep trenches to set up the base’s water lines. They dug 8 feet down, sometimes with backhoes, sometimes by hand shovel.
“It was hard to breathe,” Nimpchaimanatham said. “It was kind of like being in [a] room with gas fumes.”
The squadron was not wearing protective gear, he said.
“There was no heads up of, ‘Hey guys, this is an area — there’s a lot of contamination in here. Be sure to wear protective gear.’”
More dirt was disturbed to build a berm, a 20-foot dirt wall that protected the base. But it created what Veterans described as a “fishbowl” around the tents.
“So when it rained, it flooded,” said retired Senior Master Sgt. Carmen Bellard, who deployed to K2 as a loadmaster for the 711th Special Operations Squadron in 2002.
Water pushed into the tents ankle-deep and often had an oily, multi-colored sheen, K2 Veterans told McClatchy and provided photos of the water surrounding their tents. Gravel and new soil added to alleviate the flooding became mud.
In November 2001, former Air Force Tech Sgt. Jason Massey was asked to help dig a trench around his operations tent, to keep the floodwater out and protect the electronics inside.
“There was a clank,” said Massey, who arrived at K2 in October 2001 as a special operations intelligence analyst.
Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians who specialize in disposing of bombs were called in. The men had dug down to a 250-pound buried explosive.
Eventually warning signs were erected. Outside the berm, a new bright yellow sign went up with black and red letters that said: “Danger Keep Out. Chemical Weapons.”
Another black and white sign — “Danger. Off Limits. Radiation Hazard.” — was in front of a row of ponds nicknamed “Skittles” after the candy because the water glowed bright green but often had other colors too. The ponds were located just outside the berm.
As the base grew, briefings for new arrivals included a caution about the ponds and an assurance that the berm would protect them.
“I remember raising my hand and going, ‘Since when does dirt stop radiation?’” said former Master Sgt. John Kiser, who deployed to K2 with the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.
The Veterans also remember warnings by detector tubes and Geiger counters for chemical or radioactive threats.
Former Master Sgt. Raymond Towner said he was watching TV in an old aircraft hangar in June 2002 “when two guys in white hazardous contamination suits walked in and told everybody to get out.” Towner served as an aerospace ground equipment mechanic at K2.
Later, base leadership told them it was a false positive, Towner said. “They briefed us, ‘look, you can go back in there,’” he said, but nobody moved back in.
Towner, 47, has a brain cyst, had cancerous lymph nodes removed from his neck, and lost half of his tongue to cancer.
“It seemed like every time something was raised, it was ‘Oh, we have an explanation for that,’” said former Senior Master Sgt. Tony Harris, who deployed to K2 in 2002 as a maintainer with the 919th Special Operations Wing.
Military doctors started raising concerns about the number of personnel who served at K2 being diagnosed with cancer.
A 20th Special Forces Group battalion surgeon, Lt. Col. Frank DeAngelo, wrote the VA on Skinner’s behalf in 2009, asking them to look deeper. DeAngelo had learned of three brain cancer cases of service members who were at K2.
“If one uses an annual incidence rate of 1 per 16,000 cases of primary brain malignancy diagnosed in the U.S. population, these cases diagnosed in former K2 personnel become extremely suspicious,” DeAngelo wrote in a 2009 letter to the VA.
In 2015, the Army published an in-depth look at illnesses reported at the base, prompted by a number of U.S. Army Special Operations Command forces at K2 who had developed various types of cancer.
Despite the Army Special Operations Command requesting the review, “special operations forces personnel could not be identified,” the study reported. It was “likely” that the roster of 7,005 U.S. service members who served at K2 did not count them or their cancers.
Still, among the conventional forces at the base, the study found 11 reported cancers among service members who were 25 years old or younger when they were stationed at K2, including one brain cancer. There were 50 cancers reported among service members who were older than 25 during their deployment, including four brain cancers. The study cautioned that there may be other factors besides serving at K2 connected to the cancers.
“These findings may motivate further investigation,” the report said.
VA was provided a copy of the study and responded that it did not change their position.
“The 2015 report you reference is inconclusive and the limitations section (1.3) says as much,” VA spokeswoman Susan Carter said. “It states, ‘the results of this investigation should be considered preliminary.’”
Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that between 2001 and 2005, when K2 was used by U.S. forces, “military public health personnel collected and assessed thousands of occupational and environmental health samples to monitor the health risks to our personnel.”
Those measurements found that long-term exposure could lead to developing some lung and heart conditions, but “we did not find any evidence that there were hazards capable of increasing the cancer risks faced by our service members,” he said.
While the VA would decide if any additional illnesses should be added as presumptive conditions for K2, “we would support the continued monitoring of Veterans health status,” Hoffman said.
The VA also provided a fact sheet on K2 that said “long-term adverse health effects would not be expected from depleted uranium contamination based on site assessments and the proper use of protective measures by personnel.”
That angers K2 Veterans who remember how the Defense Department moved the soil to create the berm, which exposed layers of contaminated soil that was then further dispersed by floods and wind, and during the winter months just became a muddy muck that stuck to everything.
“I never would have had depleted uranium in my system if I hadn’t gone to K2,” Bellard said.
She had chronic fatigue, headaches, respiratory issues and muscle twitches after her deployment and began looking for a cause. A VA-conducted urine test detected depleted uranium, but the amounts were too low to “have any health consequences related to it,” the agency notified her in June 2018.
Massey, who dug up the 250-pound explosive, had to leave the military just before he would have qualified for retirement benefits because of debilitating chronic migraines and other illnesses. He is now seeking additional medical care from the VA because he keeps collapsing without warning.
More than 1,100 K2 Veterans and a few of the surviving spouses have joined a Facebook group, “K2 Karshi Khanabad, Uzbekistan Radiation and Toxic Exposures.”
The site was started in 2012 by retired Master Sgt. Paul Widener, who served at K2 for multiple deployments starting in late 2001 with the Air Force’s 8th Special Operations Squadron.
He started the Facebook group to help Air Force Veteran Tech Sgt. Mike West connect with other K2 Veterans. West, who 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 Facebook site has become a critical resource for the Veterans, where they post requests for help after VA denials and access a library of photos and documents they can use to file appeals to the agency.
There are notices from families and final posts from members who are in the last stages of their cancer fight and have decided to enter hospice care.
“There is nothing more to do as far as treatment goes (last line of chemo). The tumors on the pancreas and liver are getting bigger, not smaller,” retired Air Force Col. John Partain wrote in April 2019. He had deployed to K2 in 2002 with the 711th Special Operations Squadron.
Partain, 59, was entering hospice care. He wanted to file new paperwork to the VA, because his initial claim had been denied. He was trying to get the VA to recognize his cancer as service connected so that his wife, Claire, and their kids would receive retroactive disability compensation payments after he passed away.
“He brought up the VA, and how it was time to hire an attorney,” Claire Partain said. “I asked him, ‘Is this really how you’d like to spend the rest of your life?’”
John Partain decided to let it go. He died in September.
“You shouldn’t have to spend your final days fighting for this,” Claire Partain said.
Widener, who set up the Facebook site, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2007. He has been helping care for retired fellow 8th Special Operations Squadron Lt. Col. Rich Riddle, another K2 Veteran, who has stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Widener continues to be contacted by K2 Veterans who don’t want to be on Facebook, but want him to know they are also ill.
“I don’t go to the funerals anymore,” Widener said. “It got to the point where there were just too many.”