A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday released a collection of newly declassified Defense Department documents indicating that US troops who were deployed to a Central Asian base in the wake of the 9/11 attacks were likely exposed to a dangerous mix of toxins and other hazards, which some believe has led to increased cancer rates among US service members stationed there.
The base in question was a former Soviet military installation called Karshi-Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan, often referred to as "K2," which served as a key logistical hub for US forces during the campaign to target al Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Thousands of American troops were stationed there from 2001 until 2005, when Uzbekistan's then-President Islam Karimov ejected US personnel from the country following US criticism of his government's crackdown on protesters and its human rights record.
The documents released Thursday by the House Oversight Committee's Subcommittee on National Security include the 2001, 2002 and 2004 environmental hazard surveys and health risk assessments that the Defense Department carried out on the base.
One survey from 2001 says the soil around the base was contaminated with jet fuel, and that "inhalation of vapors from exposed, subsurface fuel contaminated soils could potentially cause adverse health effects to personnel ... if sufficient exposure circumstances occur," recommending a prohibition against digging into soil contaminated with jet fuel.
A military health assessment from 2004 found that although "less than 10% of personnel will experience [radiation] exposures above background" at the camp, "the potential for daily contact with radiation exists for up to 100% of the assigned units."
Soviet missiles were destroyed at the base
According to Defense Department documents, several years prior to the US military's use of the base, Soviet missiles had been destroyed there.
"This event contaminated some areas of surface dirt with low-level radioactive depleted uranium and asbestos," according to the document, although efforts were made to cordon off the contaminated areas.
"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," the chairman of the subcommittee, Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, said in a statement accompanying the release of the documents.
"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," he added.
The subcommittee's top Republican, Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee, said the "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."
"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," he added."
K2 veterans were not made aware of the risks
Veterans who had deployed to the base previously told the committee that they had not been made aware of the risks of exposure.
"K2 members were told repeatedly that no significant risk from hazards existed," retired Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Widener Jr. told the subcommittee in February.
"There were no briefings on toxic exposures, no protective equipment recommended, issued or employed," he added.
The subcommittee's statement said the Department of Veterans Affairs had said in April that it was taking "steps to address the concerns of K2 servicemembers and veterans, including designing a new study to investigate health trends among K2 Veterans."
Veterans groups have long called for the declassification of the health assessments.
"The Department of Defense is committed to transparency. Once it was determined that there was no further need for the documents to be classified, the Department began the process of declassification with U.S. Central Command. Once declassified, the documents were shared with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The documents were originally classified to protect troop strength and location data," a Pentagon spokesperson told CNN.