News 5 Investigates: Executive order could mean help for Gulf Coast veterans sick from serving at contaminated base

Northwest Florida

Mobile, Ala. (WKRG) — WKRG News 5 has learned the acting Secretary of Defense and the Veterans Administration Secretary Robert Wilkie have drafted an executive order that could speed up help for veterans who served at a highly contaminated airbase shortly after 9-11.

Hundred of veterans who served at Karshi-Khanabad, also known as K-2 in Uzbekistan between 2001 and 2005, are now reporting various cancers and other illnesses they believe are connected to their service there.

The area where they were stationed, named Camp Stronghold Freedom, is now known to have been contaminated with as many as 392 cancer-causing chemicals, including arsenic, cyanide, and high levels of radiation, according to recently declassified Department of Defense documents.

Douglas Wilson served as an Air Force mechanic. He was a fit 21 year-old at the time he was deployed to K-2 as special operations units from Hurlbert Field conducted missions in support of the war in Afghanistan, which is just across the Uzbeki border. Today, he can’t walk or drive because of cancer.

Wilson told WKRG News 5 he was diagnosed with primary central nervous system lymphoma. Wilson said, “Right now my cancer, and the consequences of my cancer are not service connected.”

Others told us similar stories of serious illnesses.

K2 veteran Richard Van Wey told us, “I went through over six hundred hours of chemotherapy.”

Daryl Riddle said her husband, Lt. Col. Rich Riddle passed away this past June after various illnesses they both believed were connected to his service at K2. She said, “He just had this sudden turn around. They discovered brain cancer.”

P.J. Widener, also a K2 veteran, said, “I had two different types of primary cancer—my stomach ruptured and exploded.”

These veterans and many others still live in northwest Florida near Hurlbert Field, the home of Air Force Special Operations. The Veterans Administration has yet to connect their illnesses to their service at K2.

“They’re pretty much ignoring and denying anything related to K2,” said P.J. Widener.

Just this year Widener formed the Stronghold Freedom Foundation. He did it on a promise to fellow veteran Mike West, who passed away in 2013 from illnesses they believe were connected to West’s service at K2. The foundation was formed out of a Facebook page they both started in 2011 to raise awareness about the plight of K2 veterans. That page attracted many other K2 veterans who also self-reported cancers and other illnesses.

The goal of the foundation is to pressure Congress and the Department of Defense to recognize the toxic exposure to the veterans.

Widener said, “Every form of toxicological or contaminant or environmental testing that was done by the DOD was classified.”

Those recently declassified documents reveal what the DOD knew all along–that Camp Stronghold Freedom was highly contaminated.

“The service members would be told, ‘no, that’s really not a problem–there’s no health risk to you’,” said Widener.

Douglas Wilson said if the V.A. recognized the connection between his service at K2 and his current illnesses, it would open up a lot more benefits to him, including rides to therapy and even more money for his household.

Last month in testimony before a House Oversight Committee, a V.A. doctor said more scientific information is needed in order to determine a connection between the illnesses the K2 veterans are suffering, and the connection to their service in Uzbekistan. But that could take as much as another year.

“It would be a disservice to the veterans, all veterans, to simply say ‘we don’t know how you got it, we’re just going to cover it.’,” said Dr. Patricia Hastings. “My office looks at the science, I want to find out what the exposures were.”

While a long-term study is underway, it’s the battle against time these veterans fear they cannot win.
Now, the Stronghold Freedom Foundation tells us help may be on the way. Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said they believe President Trump will sign the executive order drafted by he and V.A. Secretary Robert Wilkie that would put Uzbekistan on par with Afghanistan. SFF said Miller stated, “It’s time for action, not more ‘good science.’

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