'This place is toxic'
In 2003, Army veteran Mark Jackson deployed to Karshi-Khanabad Air Base (K2) in Uzbekistan.
“The very first thing I write about is my throat and my eyes stinging from … this rotten smell,” said Mark. “The next day, my journal entry said, ‘This place is toxic.’"
Mark soon found himself logging various symptoms: coughs, headaches, rashes, shortness of breath, fatigue.
The Department of Defense knew that service members there were exposed to dangerous toxins, and a 2015 U.S. Army study found that K2 veterans have a 500% greater chance of developing certain cancers. Still, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize the majority of K2 exposures.
Soon after leaving K2, and at just 27 years old, Mark’s thyroid effectively died. At 30, he was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. At 43, his doctor told him he had the bones of an 80-year-old.
Last summer, he was hospitalized for a month due to a blood infection. Treatment required three surgeries and a catheter to his heart.
“I’m 45 years old, and I’ll go ahead and assume that I’m pretty well beyond middle-aged at this point based on the wheels coming off,” he said.
To date, Mark is only receiving service-connected disability benefits for his thyroid. That means it’s up to him to cover the costs of treatments for his other conditions, whether out of pocket or through private insurance.
K2’s toxicity wasn’t a secret. Signs warned of chemical agents and radiation hazards. Jackson said that, despite the clear signs of danger, he’d do it all over again.
“And I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t,” he said. “The basic terms of service when you sign up are that you’re going to give all the way up to and including your life, but they’re going to take care of you and your family. And they’re not honoring their end of the bargain.”
“Toxic exposures—and specifically recognition of the exposures at K2—will be part of DAV’s critical policy goals in 2023. We won’t stop beating that drum,” said Deputy National Legislative Director Shane Liermann. “We will seek legislation that concedes K2 exposures, orders studies on those exposures and establishes presumptive diseases.
“And we expect Congress and the VA to act with the urgency required to keep our promise to these veterans and their families.”
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