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Female veterans detail health challenges after serving at K2 military base

CBS News logo CBS News 1/13/2021 Catherine Herridge
a group of people on a beach: cbsn-fusion-female-veterans-blame-toxic-military-base-for-miscarriages-cancers-thumbnail-625727-640x360.jpg © Credit: CBSNews cbsn-fusion-female-veterans-blame-toxic-military-base-for-miscarriages-cancers-thumbnail-625727-640x360.jpg

Former Army intelligence analyst Elba Barr is trained to connect the dots —training she's now using to sift through a mound of medical records.

"There's been something massive since 2013 every year, medical-wise," Barr told CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge.

While Barr deployed across the Middle East and Africa after 9/11 to track Al-Qaeda there is no question in her mind the most toxic and dangerous place was Karshi-Khanabad, or K2, a former Soviet airbase in Uzbekistan, a jumping-off point for classified missions into Afghanistan.

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"K2 was to me, a base that should've never been a base ... hazards, signs everywhere of where your hazards were," she said. 

The 41-year-old mother of two blames the four months she spent at K2 for her chronic reproductive health issues.

"I had cervical issues, continued having severe pain, endometriosis. I had to have a partial hysterectomy. Last year, I had both of my ovaries removed and they found onset, stage 1 cancer," Barr said. 

Barr is one of more than 200 female K2 veterans who flooded a Facebook page where members discuss contamination and health issues.

The nonprofit that tracks K2 cases says 40% of former women service members who were at the base self-report at least one miscarriage, 8% report breast or uterine cancers and 30% report ovarian cancer or related issues. This data horrified Barr — bringing her to tears.

A six-month CBS News investigation revealed soil saturated with jet fuel, oil and lubricants, radiation warnings, as well as prior use of chemical agents.  

Defense Department employee Mike Lechlitner was involved in early testing of the base. He said that new information has revealed a lot about the base.

"We've learned that the Soviets have had a chemical weapons decontamination unit adjacent to our camp."

Images obtained by CBS News show the base was also a dumping ground for used chemical weapons equipment, including protective gear like face masks that were used to block chemical agents. Those face masks were found in "tent city" where troops worked and slept.

a pile of hay: Soviet-era protective gear including face masks used to block chemical agents were found dumped within walking distance of K2's © Provided by CBS News Soviet-era protective gear including face masks used to block chemical agents were found dumped within walking distance of K2's

Barr said the CBS News investigation was life-changing, giving her clarity on the cause of the medical issues she had been facing for years. 

"I've spent the better part of ten years wondering, 'Am I going crazy?... And so that's what [the CBS News investigation] did. It validated all, a decade's worth of issues."

Barr is now opening up to her children about her toxic exposure. 

"I have no doubt I'm gonna die young. You're assuming that I'm not. I live on borrowed time, 100%. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," Barr said to Herridge. 

Cancers may be linked to contaminated airbase... 05:23 © Provided by CBS News Cancers may be linked to contaminated airbase... 05:23

Despite the data, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not recognize a link between K2 and illness. Barr wants leadership to step up and despite her and other veterans' sufferings, she is sure that they would serve again.

"And if you ask us, we'll do it again, in a heartbeat. All we asking for is, we upheld our end of the deal and it's on the VA and it's on the Department of Defense to hold up theirs."

Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller drafted an executive order that would open the door to medical help and financial relief for K2 veterans. The executive order was in its final stages when the Capitol was overrun by rioters last Wednesday. The K2 veterans' group is hopeful it will still get signed by President Trump, though they are reaching out to the Biden administration in case there is no action before Inauguration Day. 

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