(WASHINGTON) — More than 15 years after her husband died of stage three brain cancer, Kim Brooks of Norwood, Massachusetts, shared his story with lawmakers on Thursday.
“I’m here today because my husband, Lt. Col. Timothy Brooks, can’t be,” she said, testifying to the House Subcommittee on National Security — only two weeks after her first visit to Washington, where she was part of a group that demanded a hearing before Congress to ultimately get recognition of the health effects that resulted from their exposure at an Uzbek military base.
Tim Brooks served at Karshi-Khanabad, otherwise known as K2, from November 2001 through Spring 2002. The U.S. had leased the former Soviet base from the Uzbek government following the 9/11 attacks — largely because of its convenient location near al-Qaida and Taliban targets in northern Afghanistan.
In May 2003, Tim Brooks was at a pre-deployment meeting with his wife when he collapsed and had a grand mal seizure. A year later he died at age 36.
According to previous ABC News reporting, a November 2001 report by the Army Public Health Center found areas of the base “contaminated with asbestos and low-level radioactive depleted uranium,” which were caused by the destruction of Soviet missiles.
Kim Brooks told lawmakers Thursday that she believes her husband’s cancer was caused by these toxic exposures at the base, and now she’s pleading for recognition from the government.
“K2 families and veterans deserve to know the full extent of what they were exposed to so that they can focus on their health and plan for their futures,” she said.
In a statement on Thursday to ABC News, a spokesperson from the Department of Veterans Affairs said the department is working closely with the Defense Department to “document health status and mortality outcomes for those who served at K2.”
“At this time the data does not show increased cancer mortality rates,” the spokesperson said. “The VA continues to review the data and will follow this cohort for trends or emerging issues.”
Because Tim Brooks was on active duty at the time of his diagnosis, his family received financial support for his medical care — and later, funding for his children’s education — from the VA. However, Kim Brooks reiterated to lawmakers on Thursday about how not every sick K2 veteran is receiving those same benefits.
“It has been over 15 years since we lost him,” she said, holding back tears. “But it is newly devastating to learn that there are so many others going through the same pain and loss that my family did — without the support that they were promised when they decided to serve.”
Rep. Stephen Lynch, the subcommittee’s chairman, said the stories he’s heard from Brooks and other K2 veterans have been “extremely troubling, too often because of how they end.”
“Unfortunately, we have seen this pattern play out before,” he said. “From Agent Orange in Vietnam, to military burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not the first time the VA has initially refused to acknowledge certain health conditions as related to military service, only to have that judgment overruled and a presumption of service-connected disability established when additional information emerges.”
In early January, Lynch wrote a letter with Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the chairwoman for the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, to the VA and the DOD. In that letter, they requested documentation to learn more about hazardous exposures at K2. Lynch said Thursday that they still have not received a response.
“To date, DOD has yet to provide any of the documents we asked for, and instead told the committee it would provide a more detailed response in three months,” he said. “That’s three months that K2 veterans, including those suffering from cancer, will be kept waiting for answers.”
On Tuesday, Lynch and Rep. Mark Green, another member of the subcommittee and a former veteran himself, introduced the K2 Veterans Toxic Exposure Accountability Act of 2020. If passed, the bill would direct the Secretary of Defense to investigate toxic exposures among K2 service members and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a registry for those exposures.
“We have to give the benefit of the doubt to the warrior,” Green said, referring to questions about a causal relationship between exposures at K2 and veterans’ subsequent illnesses.
The subject matter of Thursday’s hearing was personal to Green, who said he too spent time at K2 with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment — and was later diagnosed with cancer.
“I think many of the people in the room know that I have had colon cancer and thyroid cancer,” he said.
“Who gets two primary cancers at the same time?” he continued. “Right? It’s unheard of.”
Green said he had no genetic predisposition or family history of either cancer, adding that it was “unacceptable” for himself or any other veterans to be uninformed about hazardous exposure during their deployments.
Former Master Sgt. PJ Widener, Jr., the creator of a Facebook group for K2 veterans, where he’s been tracking reported illnesses, also testified at the hearing Thursday. He said there have been over 400 K2 veterans who have identified themselves on his Facebook group as having diagnoses ranging from cancer to chronic migraines.
“There are K2 veterans who will not be kissing anyone at New Year’s Eve this next year,” Widener told lawmakers. “They’re going to be on the other side of the grave. We beg you to right this injustice.”
The DOD did not immediately respond to an ABC News request for comment.
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