Acting defense secretary drafts executive order to help those who served at toxic base: "Let's err on the side of the veteran"

W.H. eyes executive order over toxic base
W.H. eyes executive order over toxic base 04:27

A newly-drafted executive order would open the door to medical help and financial relief for veterans who believe their rare cancers and other illnesses stem from their time served on a remote military base.

The veterans were assigned to the base in the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks and have spent years struggling for recognition.

Since then, more than 2,000 current and former service members have reported illnesses, including rare forms of cancers, that they believe are linked to the former Soviet base otherwise known as K-2, a CBS News investigation has revealed. 

Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller told CBS senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge in his first network television interview that he's getting directly involved in the case.

"[I'm] throwing the kitchen sink at this," Miller said.

Miller was one of the first to go to Afghanistan after September 11 as an Army special forces commander. He launched from the former Soviet airbase, Karshi-Khanabad, or K-2, in neighboring Uzbekistan. The acting secretary said the K-2 reports are personal for him. 

"It's very personal. I feel that I have an obligation to help those that went through there and are suffering illnesses," he said. 

Of the 15,000 service members who passed through K-2 between 2001 and 2005, more than 2,000 have flooded a Facebook page used for self-reporting illnesses, including rare cancers.

Miller said his focus in on helping the veterans who served at the base.

"What I want is let's err on the side of the veteran, and not get caught up in bureaucracy and endless studies like we've done in the past. That's my commitment. There's something going on undoubtedly," he said.

Miller said he hopes to provide help for K-2 veterans by January 20, 2021 by drafting an executive order for President Trump's considerationHe says he is confident the order will be signed by the president.

"That's my fundamental goal and desire, and we'll sprint to the very end to try to make this happen," he said.

A CBS News investigation documented new evidence of toxic conditions at the base, including soil saturated with jet fuel, a running track marked with warning signs, high levels of radiation, a 1993 explosion that dispersed toxic material across the base  as well as the existence as of a Soviet era chemical weapons decontamination unit. A site was even nicknamed "Skittles Pond" for its changing shade. 

Among the affected veterans is Doug Wilson, a former Air Force mechanic, who says he can no longer work or drive after a rare form of cancer caused brain damage.

"I had no idea that at 40 this would be my life," Wilson said.

Miller said seeing Wilson's story "drove [him] to take this on more rapidly."

Meanwhile, K-2 veteran Mark Jackson told CBS News that he recently received a preliminary diagnosis of cancer. He said the last 15 years have felt like a betrayal. 

Miller, who is working with the Veterans Affairs Department, said the executive order he drafted would add Uzbekistan to the toxic exposure registry, alongside Afghanistan. This would allow K-2 veterans, like Jackson and Miller, to access preventive screenings and financial support. 

"This [executive order] will recognize their service as being involved with the operations in Afghanistan and open up programs and benefits to them that currently they are not able to access," he said. 

Asked about the K-2 widows who have already lost their spouse to cancer, they believe is linked to toxic exposure at the base, Miller said they would not be left behind. 

A recent Congressional hearing on the K-2 issue was held last month to address health concerns from sick service members. 

Motivated by a new sense of momentum, Miller hopes to use his ability to have some influence and break through what he calls "bureaucratic logjams." 

A White House spokesman said he would not speculate on the potential executive action. If President Trump declines to sign the draft order, President-elect Joe Biden could take up the issue in office. 

Both Jackson and Wilson told CBS News they would support an executive order. 

  • Catherine Herridge
    Catherine Herridge On Twitter»

    Catherine Herridge is a senior investigative correspondent for CBS News covering national security and intelligence based in Washington, D.C.