ST. CHARLES, Mo. (KMOV.com) -- There's a growing concern local veterans could be getting sick from exposure to an old Russian Army base used by the United States military after 9/11, and a soldier from Missouri is now leading the battle for truth and accountability.
James Donahue was commander of the 329th quartermaster battalion: an Army Reserve unit based in St. Louis. After 9/11 this unit was called upon to backfill and supply the air base Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan said Donahue.
Karshi-Khanabad airbase, sometimes called "K2," was an old Russian Army base that the U.S. military converted into a landing zone and tent city for U.S. soldiers, and served as an important hub in the fight against terrorism.
Donahue said conditions at the facility were rustic.
“My unit was the only unit in tents the entire time we were there,” he said.
The unit was deployed there for nine months; but years later those few short months are having a lasting impact.
Donahue is one of those who served at the base facing a diagnosis of cancer years later.
“I know that there are a lot of others that have had issues medical issues, I’ve had medical issues … My family has no cancer and yet I got kidney cancer,” Donahue said.
Scott Welsh, is from the Kansas City area, and is another soldier who served at K2 after 9/11. He’s battling illness today.
“Disk degeneration, headaches, skin rashes, kidney stones constantly,” Welshe said. He was also diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2013.
The health concerns all stem from what the Russians left behind when they abandoned the base after the Cold War.
“My understanding, the Russians in 1978-1979 used that base for storing chemical munitions, mustard gas, mustard derivative, uranium, other contaminants were used at that base which I had no idea,” Donahue said.
Other reports show the U.S. government spread clean soil on top of the contamination and believed that move capped any toxins. However, soldiers like Welsh call it a literal “cover-up” that didn't work, pointing out photos of strong wind storms and flooding.
Donahue agreed, saying “when I got there in June there was still a lot of puddles that had not evaporated and had not sunk into the ground. We noticed almost immediately that the ground itself was not porous, so you spilled something, the water did not go anywhere, so we assumed there was oil.”
There were other warning signs, literal warning signs
Welsh said there was a sign “right by the track, right where we ran … you’d run laps and run right by the sign.”
Welsh took photos of a pond soldiers called “Skittles Pond” because the color was so intense.
In recent years, Welsh helped organize a Facebook group for those who served at K2 and now suffer from illness. Of the group members, 10% report battling some type of cancer. But that’s only the members who have joined the Facebook group and in recent studies it shows around 10% of members of the military report being diagnosed with cancer.
Donahue said there were dozens of St. Louisans who served at K2, and many of them may not know their health issues could be connected to their time serving during the war on terror.
But both Welsh and Donahue said the Department of Defense needs to be doing more to help those veterans.
The Department of Defense acknowledged K2 has a history in a report sent to doctors.
The report explained that soldiers who served there reported a bad smell and black goo at the site. The handout blames a leaking Soviet-era underground fuel distribution system. It also acknowledges asbestos and low level radioactive processed uranium in the soil.
Additionally, the document revealed trace amounts of nerve and blister agents have been found in a test but points out more recent tests are negative and claims those early tests were likely false positives.
The handout also offers this advice for doctors on how to manage concerns from patients, "thank them for that service."
“I think there was enough in the terms of the people that were at K2, I think there is enough information that the DOD that they can really put together a list of who was there who was affected and really come back through the VA and try to treat all of those people,” Donahue said.
But until that happens, veterans impacted by K2 will keep having to cut through red tape until the Department of Defense officially declares it a hazardous site.
For Donahue, even after dealing with cancer, he still believes in the mission.
“For me was it worth it, I think for everyone that was there it changed their life, I think anyone who has been deployed will tell you it changed their life, it changed their perspective,” he said.
Donahue urges any St. Louisans who served at K2 to reach out to their fellow soldiers on the private Facebook page.
On February 27th, the Sub-Committee on National Security will hold a hearing to hear testimony from service members who are dealing with health issues after serving at K2.