Washington, D.C. — This week, U.S. Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, held a hearing to examine how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) are working to address the health concerns of veterans and servicemembers who deployed to Karshi-Khanabad (K2) Air Base in Uzbekistan between 2001 and 2005.
The hearing marked the first time VA and DOD testified before the Subcommittee regarding K2 since the start of the Subcommittee’s nearly year long investigation. The Subcommittee heard testimony from Dr. Patricia R. Hastings, Chief Consultant of Post Deployment Health Services at the Department of Veterans Affairs, and Dr. David J. Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Readiness Policy and Oversight at the Department of Defense.
Chairman Lynch and Ranking Member Grothman both expressed disappointment that the VA did not agree to the Subcommittee’s bipartisan request for an assistant secretary-level policymaker to testify at the hearing.
Subcommittee Members on both sides of the aisle urged the VA to grant presumptive status and service-connected benefits to K2 veterans:
- Chairman Lynch said, “I see the duty and honor that we owe to these veterans as being primary, and I see a great disservice being done to these families and these veterans for a bureaucratic mis-ordering of priorities. Maybe you can explain it to me? Why would we deny this presumption with the evidence in hand, when we owe these veterans so much, and the consequences of not providing them benefits and care are devastating to these families, and in my opinion, disrespectful to their service as well.”
- Rep. Clay Higgins said, “I don’t understand why the VA would not just grant presumptive conditions to K2 veterans that present with conditions and diseases that very well may have been [due] to their service exposure to conditions at K2. None of us argue against, none of us on this committee are saying don’t study. By all means conduct your long-term studies, but in the meantime grant these veterans the presumptive coverage that they need to address the diseases that they very likely contracted while in service to their country at K2.”
DOD and the VA must be more transparent with servicemembers and veterans about the potential health risks of having served at K2:
- Dr. Hastings testified that, “VA is very aware that we owe those who served at K2 an understanding of possible health outcomes.” However, Dr. Hastings later conceded that the VA has not yet sent a previously-drafted letter to veterans providing them with additional resources about K2. When Chainman Lynch pressed Dr. Hastings to explain why the VA has not yet sent the letter, Dr. Hastings committed to doing so.
- Rep. Elaine Luria said, “It seems that there is information provided to veterans that does not instill their trust in the system, both within DOD healthcare and within the VA,” referencing an Army document, which advised DOD healthcare providers to tell concerned K2 servicemembers. “There were no K2 exposures of health consequence, the protective risk control measures were effective … and ongoing monitoring ensures continued protection.” She continued, “So for our veterans who are watching today who have concern about this, this information that they [the Army] provided is directly in conflict to what you’ve been discussing today.”
The longer it takes to complete its epidemiological study, K2 veterans and servicemembers will be left without critical healthcare and disability benefits:
- Although the VA told the Subcommittee in April 2020 that it planned to complete an epidemiological study on K2 in 12-18 months, Dr. Hastings testified that it may not be completed within the original timeline, “I will tell you that we are doing it with a very small staff … at this point in time, I would say that by next December is when I’m hoping that we would be able to give you at least a preliminary report on our findings, if not completion.”
- Chairman Lynch stated, “Many of these veterans who have cancer, some have already passed away, the longer the VA and DOD extend the time out for this, it sort of—it’s moot and meaningless to a lot of these families.” Rep. Clay Higgins added, “You have veterans who don’t have time. They don’t have time for a long-term study.”