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Uzbeks puzzled as US veterans link illnesses to air base

Residents living near the port of Karshi-Khanabad have fond memories of American soldiers who served at the Uzbek airbase widely known as K2 between 2001 and 2005, describing the period as one of their happiest times. . But for many Americans, the lingering affection for the residents is offset by lingering debilitating ailments they attribute to the base’s toxic and radioactive waste.

“The American period was a wonderful period,” said Oysaot Toparova, a resident now in her 70s who served for many years as a politician in the nearby village of Khanabad. “American servicemen visiting our schools, meeting the community, we loved it. I think Uzbekistan and the United States got the most out of this cooperation.”

Residents say they are perplexed by the US complaints. They note that thousands of air force personnel and Uzbek civilian workers are still working at the site and that around 10,000 people live nearby.

Mark Jackson, chairman of the board of the Stronghold Freedom Foundation, which represents retired and serving US military personnel, also describes “wonderful memories of Uzbekistan.” He says he interacted daily with locals, went to homes, enjoyed tea and meals, and traveled around the country. He is still fascinated by its history and culture.

But, he told VOA, his time at K2 left him with another legacy, one of unremitting illness and pain that he attributes to the environmental hazards left by Soviet-era Uzbekistan, a link which he found extremely difficult to justify.

“I can’t provide you with hard facts,” he said in an interview. “The facts I have are my body and the headstones. We were ignored for 20 years until we made enough noise to force Washington to admit that people went to a place that the government itself even recognized in 2001 and 2004 as being ecologically degraded and polluted.”

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan

Members of his organization include “deeply ill people,” Jackson said.

“Wars are fought with bullets and bombs. It’s a very slow bullet, going through my body. ‘an 80-year-old woman, in addition to a dying thyroid and a gastrointestinal tract that mimics that of an 80-year-old man.’

Recently released US documents confirm that the Pentagon suspects K2 may have remnants of dangerous chemicals from its days as a Soviet military facility. Now Johns Hopkins University is conducting an 18-month longitudinal epidemiological study among K2 veterans, following an executive order from former US President Donald Trump.

FILE - Photo of a US soldier guarding a shipment of Afghan ballots at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan in 2004.

FILE – Photo of a US soldier guarding a shipment of Afghan ballots at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in Uzbekistan in 2004.

“Nothing Worrying”

But on a recent visit to Khanabad by VOA, residents said they were puzzled by the US complaints. They noted that thousands of Uzbek air force personnel and civilian workers are still working at the site and about 10,000 people live nearby.

“We live next to the base,” said Dostmurod Odayev, a community leader in his 60s who describes K2 as an integral part of life in the area. “Our people work there. We have military residents serving there. I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from environmental or radiation issues at K2.”

Zoyir Mirzayev, who until last month governed the Kashkadarya region, which includes the air base, told VOA that local authorities had found no evidence to support Jackson’s complaints.

“We are aware of these American claims,” he said. “We have reviewed the environmental and health data but found nothing of concern and do not believe K2 has any radiation or lethal chemicals.”

Odayev pointed out that the area around the base is prime farmland and that families were finishing the harvest under the constant roar of planes during VOA’s visit. Although access to the base was not permitted, there was no visible evidence of a toxic environment amid the smell of fresh roses blooming in winter and livestock enjoying the surrounding pastures.

Ovul Nazarov, 61, says Americans "seemed to enjoy their time in Uzbekistan, so these statements strike us as odd," he said.

Ovul Nazarov, 61, says Americans “seemed to be enjoying their time in Uzbekistan, so these claims strike us as odd,” he said.

Ovul Nazarov, 61, said “they seemed to be enjoying their time in Uzbekistan, so these claims strike us as odd,” he said.

Quvvat Khidirov, another retired Uzbek officer with almost 30 years of service in K2, also does not understand the “American complaints”.

“I worked in a very old building at K2 for more than two decades. If the site was toxic with all these chemicals that we heard about from American colleagues, I should know a lot of sick people here, but that’s not is not the case. I myself am in good health.”

Quvvat Khidirov, a retired Uzbek officer with nearly 30 years of service in K2, doesn't understand either.

Quvvat Khidirov, a retired Uzbek officer with nearly 30 years of service in K2, doesn’t understand the “American complaints” either.

Misqol Polvonova, 62, calls herself a neighbor of K2. She raised six children across from the base. “We used to watch American jets fly low. You know, we spend a lot of time outdoors. We sleep outdoors all summer. All my kids are healthy. I have 15 grandchildren.”

Such accounts do not convince Jackson, who doubts that Uzbeks can speak freely about an issue as sensitive as hazardous waste at a strategic military installation. His group has created a private Facebook page where Uzbeks are invited to share their experiences and connect with American K2 veterans.

“Maybe they know someone who died of cancer or some very weird brain disorder, or maybe they have chronic gastrointestinal issues or some of their other organs are failing. , or they have anemia. And those are now a part of life, because they are a part of mine,” he said.

Jackson argued that without the results of the ongoing longitudinal study as well as air and ground testing, an objective review of historical records, and permission for scientists to report without interference, Uzbekistan would not has no credibility.

He said it was not about shaming Uzbeks. “The shame belongs to the Soviets who destroyed the environment, dumping petroleum products, radiation and asbestos into the ground.”

C-130 Hercules crew members board their aircraft for an Operation Enduring Freedom mission at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, Uzbekistan, April 19, 2005. (US Air Force Photo)

C-130 Hercules crew members board their aircraft for an Operation Enduring Freedom mission at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, Uzbekistan, April 19, 2005. (US Air Force Photo)

US government response

Since the beginning of Jackson’s movement, some things have changed. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs investigated military exhibits at K2, outlining potential threats, including jet fuel, which “may have occurred as a result of a leak from the Soviet-era underground jet fuel distribution system. “, and volatile organic compounds, particulates and dust. .

The VA also mentions depleted uranium, noting that “Soviet missiles were destroyed there, contaminating some surface dirt areas with low-level radioactive depleted uranium.” Asbestos and lead are listed as having been present in the K2 structures while the Americans were there.

Stronghold Freedom Foundation points out that 15,000 to 16,000 military personnel have been deployed to K2, with approximately 1,300 military personnel present at any one time. The group argues, based on its findings, findings (((https://strongholdfreedomfoundation.org/k2-facts/#documents-facts))) that at least 75% of those deployed to Uzbekistan alone developed serious illnesses.

Yet veterans complain of “endless paperwork” needed to get proper treatment. They want recognition that their illnesses are related to their service in K2.

U.S. Representative Mark Green, a K2 veteran and Republican from Tennessee, co-sponsored a bipartisan bill in February 2020 directing the U.S. Secretary of Defense to recognize “grievous and fatal service-related illnesses” of K2 veterans.

That and other legislative efforts in 2021 have not moved forward, but veterans are still hoping for congressional action. They note that their cause enjoys the support of lawmakers as ideologically opposed as Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

Gillibrand and Rubio “couldn’t have been further apart politically, but have stood together on K2. They know what’s right,” Jackson said.

One of the biggest gains for K2 veterans was the House Oversight Committee’s decision to declassify about 400 pages of information about the base.

“It’s never going to be about the money, but if the money comes from recognizing a few who deserve it, so be it,” Jackson said.

“Everyone who knows anything about Capitol Hill has told us it’s too expensive,” said Jackson, who has spoken at hearings and hired lawmakers. His response: “If you build two less F-35s, you’ll be fine.”

Jackson also said his grandfather served as a colonel in the Korean War and his father was a Vietnam veteran.

“I remember their complaints about how the government treated them. … We’ve been in armed conflict with someone since before we were a country. But we consistently forget the people who fought those wars.”