Veteran Mark Jackson is one of many on the front lines of a fight to get the proper recognition for conditions endured by U.S. troops who were deployed to the Karshi Khanabad (K2) Air Base in Uzbekistan between October 1, 2001 and December 31, 2005.
Jackson, and many others, are hoping to see HR 5957 passed by Congress to establish what’s known as “the K2 Veterans Toxic Exposure Accountability Act of 2020.” Troops who were deployed to the K2 Airbase, later renamed as Camp Stronghold Freedom, reported suffering several different health ailments, ranging from radiation poisoning and cancer to thyroid disorders and gastrointestinal (GI) issues.
Jackson is the son of Gerald and Deborah Jackson, who live above Camp Nelson. Gerald is also a U.S. Army veteran.
Jackson was active duty with the Army from 1997 through 2005. He was deployed to the K2 Airbase from July 2003 to April 2004, before the base was shut down in 2005. The K2 Airbase had been previously used as a Soviet base during the Soviet-Afghan War.
“I was the only CID Agent assigned to K2,” said Jackson. “The rest of my unit was in Bagram and Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was an unusual assignment, but an interesting one. Prior to receiving my orders, I’d never heard of Uzbekistan. I arrived at K2, via Bagram, on 24 July 2003. I lived with two Military Police Investigators, first in a tent, and a few weeks later, in a ‘B Hut.’ K2 (named for the two towns nearby: Karshi and Khanabad) was also called ‘Camp Stronghold Freedom.’ It was primarily an airfield used by U.S. Air Force cargo and attack planes, especially the C-130 Spectre. There was also a large contingent of multi-branch Special Forces. There were several hundred support personnel from every service branch, U.S. Civilians, and Uzbek contract employees.
“My job was to investigate felony level violations of U.S. Federal law (USC) and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). I also conducted route and logistics security missions, which saw me driving from Karshi to Samarkand and Tashkent and all the way to Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan.”
Jackson reported uranium, chemical weapon debris, and chemical ponds were everywhere, and black goo oozed from the ground. He stated signs were posted to warn of nuclear and chemical agents present at the site.
“I kept a daily, hand written, dated journal for all of 2003 and most of 2004, including every day of my time at K2,” said Jackson. “It contains observations, dreams, events, and how I was feeling day to day. In recent weeks, I have re-read the journal (it’s hundreds of pages) and was surprised how much I wrote about my health at the time, as well as the toxic air and soil and so on.”
Jackson provided a few entries from his journal, and as the entries progress, the deterioration of his health was apparent.
“26 July 2003: ...K2 is another old Soviet base, but a bit nicer than Bagram. Old bunkers are covered with brown grass and cyrillic symbols. MiGs and mines and chemical dumps are marked everywhere...
“28 July 2003: I ran through the minefield this morning....the running track winds its way parallel and through a marked minefield and chemical weapons dumping ground. Just beyond the single strand barbed wire fence are the mines and beyond that the low slung grass bunkers that contain old Soviet chemical weapons. The air here is poison. The ground and the dust that covers it is contaminated. Everywhere is decay and environmental degradation. And under the hot central Asian sun, I ran through a minefield this morning, breathing deeply the dusty, poisonous air.
“9 August 2003: I woke up once at 3 a.m. and again at 6 a.m. with cramps and a quick rush to the latrine tent a few hundred meters away. My stomach seems to have calmed down for now.
“21 August 2003: Tonight I am tired...my stomach virus (if that’s what it was) seems to have passed. My head hurts a little; a pinch on the right side, behind the eye. Incessant, but not especially painful.
“31 August 2003: ...Outside tonight they are spraying mosquito repellant. Thick grey clouds hang in the warm night air...a pickup truck with a flashing orange light above the cab...drives slowly around, a bulbous generator with a large exhaust pipe in the bed, coughing and spraying the heavy, malodorous repellant. The gas...or wet vapor, fills my lungs, tightens my chest...
“1 September 2003: They are spraying again tonight, except there is no wind. The fog is thick and...hangs in the air; fills our lungs. My head hurts from breathing. Some here joke they are glad they are done having children.
“27 October 2003: I ran this afternoon — about four miles — in gritty warm wind. At the landfill (burn pit) just beyond the perimeter wall, our trash was being burned. The smell of burnt plastic filled the air and my lungs as I ran.
“1 November 2003: ...Woke up exhausted and suffering from a headache that grew progressively terrible by mid-afternoon. The pressure behind my eyes made me nauseous and I slept for hours...
“2 November 2003: ...I still feel ill — like a headache hangover from yesterday...
“20 November 2003: The mountains to the south and east were visible today. The haze that normally hangs in the air, clings to the horizon, and obfuscates the view, was gone.
“9 December 2003: Headache tonight. Behind the eyes....I need sleep.
“11 December 2003: Snow flakes drift in the spotlights at the perimeter. South, the white frozen desert plains are glowing red from gas flares...
“11 February 2004: ...sick to my stomach all day...headachy...
“12-15 February 2004: So that stomach ache turned out to be a bit more serious than I had anticipated... I woke several times in the night. It was as though my stomach and diaphragm were being twisted and stabbed and burned all at once. Unlike any pain I have experienced... and it did not abate for a moment. It was relentless.... I walked to the MASH tent. The pain absorbed my abdomen...tore at my guts...It appeared to be my appendix, they said. I walked into the surgery tent and slept for two days. When I awoke, the tent was shaking from a windstorm. It hurt to move...
“28 February 2004: ...My cough persist and I am exhausted all of the time...
“29 February 2004: My cough remains persistent. I will mention it to the doctor when I see him in a few days.
“1 March 2004: I went to the doctor today, this time for the cough. He gave me antibiotics... He also checked my incisions, pressed down on the scar tissue, and approved me to return to the war.”
Upon his return from the base, Jackson left the Army and moved to Melbourne, Fla., where he currently lives and works. Jackson’s health began to worsen to the point where he went to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in 2008 to see if they could assist him.
“Within a year of returning, my thyroid ceased to function,” said Jackson. “I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and prescribed an increasing dose of synthroid (currently at 350 mcg...a “normal” dose is about 25-75 mcg). In addition, I developed a series of strange but seemingly related GI issues ranging from GERD to IBS. I have asymptomatic anemia and osteoporosis. The few people I’d remained in contact with reported similar issues.
“In 2008, I went the VA for the first time and was eventually gave a 10 percent disability for service related thyroid disorder. The VA denied the rest. I was provided about $120 a month for additional medical expenses and prescriptions. I would describe the experience as terrible. This experience forced me to give up pursuing this issue for nearly the next decade. However, in 2017 my endocrinologist referred me to a Gastroenterologist and an Oncologist for a series of cascading issues: non-iron deficient anemia, low bone density, diabetes, and on and on.
“My body – and those of my brothers and sisters in service – have become living memento mori (or a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death), broken homages to the legacy of K2, and injuries as deadly as any bullet. Living with symptoms is difficult, but living without validation and causation of your symptoms is maddening. The one organization chartered to help has by and large done the opposite, only adding insult to chronic injury. The VA has failed at its primary function ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle’ for those who served at K2.”
Jackson said of the 7,000 or so troops deployed to K2, dozens are dying from rare forms of cancer.
“Others, like me, had a series of thyroid disorders, GI issues, brain cancers, and so on,” said Jackson. “Thousands of them. Thousands of us are sick. Dozens are dead. The VA and DoD (U.S. Department of Defense) deny anything is related to our service at K2.”
Jackson discovered a private, grassroots advocacy group on Facebook, where more veterans, or their surviving family members, share their experiences during their time in the military. Jackson says the Facebook group is full of information.
Since becoming involved with the group, Jackson has spoken and provided testimony to the House Oversight and Reform Committee urging them to consider passing HR 5957. He has also spoken with many representatives and senators. Jackson’s parents have also joined him in the fight.
“We love, admire, and respect our son Mark and his comrades in arms for their commitment to voluntary public service,” said Gerald. “Mark has given his adult life to our country; active military and law enforcement. He is maimed for life as a direct causal relationship to his service in Karshi-Khanabad (K2). Futility, Mark reached out to the Veterans Administration for desperately needed medical and financial assistance. Physical, emotional, and financial trauma engendered by VA denial has exacerbated suffering experienced by Mark and other K2 veterans. Congress can force VA to act through HR 5957. Legislation cannot heal his broken body, but can ameliorate financial, emotional, and medical distress.”
Jackson said the conditions at K2, and the way those conditions affected troops deployed there, are barely getting government attention.
“Recently, the VA secretary was asked on camera about K2,” said Jackson. “We’re finally getting cabinet level attention. But the VA is still denying claims. The DoD is still denying any link to disease, or sickness, or death. The VA also sent a private pamphlet to providers suggesting that K2 was safe as anywhere in the world, there are not illnesses or deaths related to service there, and to “Thank the vets for the their service.””
Now, Jackson is in the midst of a new fight, a battle with Congress, and his hopes are that he, and those that also served on the K2 Airbase, finally receive the recognition they deserve.
“We are not asking for anything special, but recognition from the organizations that sent us seems like a small thing indeed,” said Jackson. “I have been lucky: my thyroid ceased to function almost immediately upon return from K2. A simple pill solved that. The GI stuff is painful, but mostly controlled by meds. I have a great job with great health insurance. The VA has refused coverage for the GI issues. Of the people I have remained in touch with, several have identical issues.”
When asked why HR 5957 was important, Jackson stated it will force the VA to act appropriately and give those who served on the K2 Airbase some financial, medical, physical and emotional relief.
“HR 5957 will require the VA and the DoD to act now! It will require the Secretary of Defense to conduct a study regarding toxic exposure of veterans of K2. It will require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a registry for all K2 veterans (just like Agent Orange, Blue Water Navy, Nuclear Testing, Burn Pits, etc.),” said Jackson. “Most importantly, it gives retroactive and presumptive status to all conditions presented by K2 veterans. That means those that are suffering and dying can receive care and a VA rating that will pay for care outside of the system. It will provide for benefits to survivors. It will also investigate secondary and tertiary exposure issues, such as birth defects or contamination through items worn or carried at K2, brought home, and then exposed to family. To this point, as recently as last week, the VA denies any link to K2 and toxic exposures. Should the standalone bill not work, we would like for the bill to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 (the annual bill that funds the DoD).
“I am a small piece of this story, and I am glad to help. I consider myself lucky: my disorders are chronic, and won’t (likely) be deadly for many years. My wife and children have lived with me these many years. My sister in law, who lived with us from 2000-2015, died of a very rare blood cancer. I cannot help but wonder what other horrors might lurk. Even knowing what I know now, I would still serve at K2. I volunteered my life to service. Whether my life ended by accident or bullet or disease, I chose that fate upon my free will. I would do it again. This is a slow moving bullet, slicing through my body — and the bodies of my brothers and sisters in arms — just the same as had it struck from the barrel of a gun in 2003.
“I am amongst the lucky ones: I am alive, a morning concoction of pills mimics an endocrine system, maintains the iron in my blood, and soothes the stabs and aches of IBS. I have good health insurance. I have a loving family and a large network of friends. This is not about me nor is it for my personal benefit. This is for those other volunteers whose only request is recognition and assistance. Like most of them, I would do it all over again, knowing my life could end. I only ask you help us force the VA to recognize that our sacrifice mattered. That it still matters.”