K2 Widow & Accidental Advocate II- a 9/11 Story
By Kim Brooks
One voice telling a story is seldom heard, but when 10,100 men and women raise their voices collectively to seek recognition for their illnesses and suffering in service to their country, the earth vibrates with their cries, and the sound carries on eagle’s wings to Washington, D.C.
~Tim stood in the haloed light of my Boston College modular dorm door — my roommate’s brother and future husband, all 6’5”, blonde haired, hazel eyes, and wide grin, had just “knocked” his way into my life.
Although, if I am honest, I wanted nothing to do with this West Point cadet. Having seen World War II and Vietnam era movies, I could not imagine the pain of losing a soldier, airman, marine, or sailor to combat. And so, sometime after midnight and well after the BC/Army post-tailgate party, I stubbornly challenged him and asked, “Why would you ever want a career in the military?” With passion and sincerity that spoke true to who he was at twenty, he simply said, “Duty. Honor. Country,” and those hallowed words struck a chord in me. I liked and respected him instantly; although, I immediately thought about the impact of war on soldiers and all who love them. And still, his strength of character and heart would soon pull me into those muscled arms of his, and I pushed my fears aside.
I still remember walking starry eyed down the aisle at our wedding, our future wide open before us, and the promise of for better or for worse and duty, honor, country, upheld in the church as we said our vows — I was marrying Tim and the Army that day back in January 1990, and as our local Navy priest gave us his blessing of, “Go Navy, Beat Army,” we laughed and took our first steps together in our enjoined Army life.
Falling in love and marrying a military service member meant that I “understood” the associated risks, and so I filed them away, tucked not quite so neatly in the recesses of my mind and heart. Please don’t let there be a war! Please don’t let there be a war! would be my plea, my silent mantra, the polar opposite of the calm I exuded as we danced at military balls and socialized at holiday parties with our Army friends.
And so, we lived, we laughed, we loved, and we raised our children, born at four different Army postings from Europe to the States. We hosted backyard barbecues and rocking New Year’s Eve parties with Army friends who became part of our ever-growing Army family and expanded with each successive Army move.
We were moving boxes piled high with little ones scurrying beneath our feet, making new friends and finding old friends with every new post. We were Lee Greenwood’s I’m Proud to be an American, Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Veteran’s Day parades, walls decorated with plaques, war paintings, military insignia and closets full of military gear, giant-sized Army boots stacked at the front door, and the Stars and Stripes hanging proudly outside — we were an Army family through and through, and we loved it.
And when the towers fell and the world stood still in shock and horror, we were Alan Jackson’s Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning.
As the concrete and humanity came tumbling down in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the fields of Pennsylvania, I turned to the two foreign officer’s wives standing in my Upstate New York, Fort Drum kitchen and said, “Our husbands are going to war.” My mantra of Please don’t let there be a war fell deaf to those who sought to reign terror on our homeland, and my Army husband and the father of our four children would soon head overseas to defend our nation alongside scores of American men and women who swore an oath to do the same. The War on Terror had begun — he in size 14 Army boots, desert camouflage, and a holstered black pistol at his side and me with wooden spoon in hand, red sauce on the stove, and a child on the hip in our Fort Drum home — my silent prayer had turned to Please don’t let him die. Please don’t let him die!
And still, Tim died —he lay in the sterile hospice bed in Fairfax, Virginia, his breathing growing fainter and fainter as he left us and all who loved him. And as the tears streamed down my face, I was able to tenderly stroke his forehead and kiss his cheek and tell him again and again how much I loved him — -how much our children loved him. And then, just like that, he was gone, forever still in the silence that death brings — my ears blocking the sounds of the hearts breaking in that room — Tim’s parents and mine. Our children, having been scurried away by my parents to Boston for the Memorial Day weekend, had to return to me and the news that their father had died. It was ashes to ashes and dust to dust — -and we buried my giant of a husband at Arlington, just days before Ronald Reagan was laid to rest. LTC Timothy P. Brooks, husband, father, son, brother, and friend, was dead at 36.
I want it clear that Tim did not die by bullet.
As we launched our War on Terror, the plane carrying him into Afghanistan from Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan on New Year’s Eve, 2001, was not shot down by the Taliban’s hail of bullets. Nor did he die by ambush, IED, rocket propelled grenade, or land mine. No, he did not come home to me and our children in a pine box draped by our nation’s flag. Tim had returned home apparently “safe” to me and our children, and I had been ever so thankful. Upon his return, he, the chief engineer of fun in our home, commenced once again with snowman and sandcastle building, depending on the season, backyard baseball games with our kids and the neighbors, bedtime stories, piggy-back rides, and hikes up the hills that looked like major mountains to our little explorers.
Life was good, and yet, just a little over a year later my children’s Superman and father, turned gray and still in front of me at his unit’s pre-deployment ceremony to Iraq. “Get help,” he pleaded, my world crumbling as he crumpled to the ground. My memory plays this scene slow-motion in my mind, where my legs are frozen, stuck in place, the hallway long in my memory, but only a few yards. The personnel at the front desk yelled for me to get help as they rushed to his side. I turn to the gym doors, but I can’t move, I do not want to leave him, and yet I run and throw open the Fort Drum gymnasium doors that we had just walked through and frantically screamed, “Medics! I need medics now!” Colonel Nye of 1–32 Infantry was giving his speech, and without hesitation, the medics broke formation, grabbed their medical kits that lay at their feet, and sprinted full speed out the doors, the colonel’s wife following me in pursuit, and then her arms around me as I sobbed, “He’s dead! He’s dead,” the movie reel re-playing what I still cannot shut out. He did not die that day — -an ambulance and a CT scan later revealed that there was “gray matter in his gray matter,” and then my beautiful, good, kind, and loving husband was given a death sentence of 11 months — the aggressive stage three astrocytoma, the smattering of cancer that dotted across the back of his incredibly intelligent brain, would be the executioner.
But the real executioner was K2, Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, the horror of his toxic exposure in that far away land that unfolded before our four innocent children. Tim had gone to war in the service to our nation after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. On May 29, 2004, I became a K2 widow and our children became fatherless. And with one Facebook message from my Army lieutenant son in January 2020, I became an accidental advocate.
Becoming the Accidental Advocate
A lightning bolt struck by means of a January 7, 2020, Facebook message from my Army lieutenant son. “Is this the base?” his message read with the attached link, “Cancers strike veterans who deployed to Uzbek base where black goo oozed, ponds glowed” — an article written by Tara Copp of McClatchyDC.com. https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/national-security/article238510218.html
The shock reverberated through me as I re-read my son’s message and looked out across the rows of my students studiously working in groups of two and three on a history assignment. I felt nauseous, gut punched.
“OMG! Yes! Makes me so sick to see this — your dad wrote me about this exact stuff!” I messaged back to him quickly before circulating amongst my students to check their research on ancient Rome.
How many years had it been between my husband, LTC Timothy P. Brooks’ death, on May 29, 2004, and this revelation that dropped like a thunderbolt from a clear blue, January 2020 sky? And yet, was this not the very truth that I had known since 2001 when Tim had written from Uzbekistan that he “didn’t know” what the black goo was that came up from his tent floor, nor why he woke up in the morning with a thick layer of dust covering his face, ears, nose, and lips?
What ensued in the days following my son’s bombshell Facebook message, were a slew of texts between my veterans’ rights advocate/lawyer/daughter and me.
“Can you class action for the vets mentioned in the article John sent you?” I queried my Yale Law School graduate daughter.
Her response, “Not at-the-moment — I think the best thing to do would be to keep abreast of the advocacy efforts by joining the FB group mentioned in the article. Until there’s good science on the issue, I think the best route is legislative.”
A sleepless night ensued — tossing and turning, I replayed Tim’s words to me in our Fort Drum kitchen in Spring 2002. “You won’t believe what they said that we were exposed to!” he said in shock, his face filled with worry and disbelief — he had just arrived home from a post-deployment briefing at the Fort Drum theater where he had been briefed on his toxic exposure and had been asked to sign an acknowledgment as such. He, at 6’5”, 220lbs, stood there shaking in our kitchen, while our youngest, not yet two, played on the floor beside us. Depleted uranium were the words that I had heard from Tim over 18 years ago.
Waking the next morning from my restless slumber, I anguished over whether I had the courage and the audacity to reach out to the K2 Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan FB group. I would be exposing old wounds, and would “they” even want to hear from me? And yet, with hands shaking, I typed Tim’s story into the “Membership Questions” on the Admin. page of the Facebook group and hit “Enter.”
I do not know what I expected to happen — I simply wanted Tim counted among these men and women of K2 — and then as if a nod from above, my membership in this revered group of veterans was approved.
“They allowed me to join the FB page even though it said spouses could not join — they added your dad’s name to the list of the deceased for their records! They want people to talk to their reps and senators in every state,” I immediately texted her, tears falling down my face — Tim had now been counted among the far too many ill and the dead due to toxic exposure.
Soon I was receiving messages from Derek Blumke, a K2 veteran and now current State Quartermaster and Adjutant of the Michigan Veterans of Foreign Wars — would I write a letter to members of Congress and tell Tim’s story and when finished would I email them a copy? Done! And then Derek called me –would I be willing to walk the halls of Congress with him and Paul (PJ) Widener, one of the founders of the Facebook Group, a K2 veteran, and Executive Director of the recently established Stronghold Freedom Foundation? Would I be willing to testify before members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee? Yes!
Below is my e-mail to Derek and PJ and my plunge into advocacy on behalf of the 10,100 K2 veterans and their families:
Sun, Jan 26, 2020, 9:55 AM
Good morning men,
This has certainly been a journey of emotions. I have unlocked incredible memories while reading “actual U.S. mail” letters and cards between Tim and me from 1987 through his deployment to K2 and Afghanistan. (Gosh, how I loved that man!) Not only has the wound been reopened for me but for all who loved Tim, and we all willingly go down this path together to write letters to our Congressmen and women.
What I have now realized in speaking to one of Tim’s siblings (about how and why I reached out with trembling hands to the K2 group and then asked his family and others to get involved) is that Tim had a sworn duty to protect and to serve the United States of America, and he believed in God, Family, Duty, Honor, Country. These words are written again and again and again in all his letters to me. The bottom line is that he believed in the greater good of our country and our Republic. I believe he would be extremely sad to know how his country, which he swore an oath to protect, is leaving veterans in the dust. I believe he would feel betrayed. In fact, this is how we (the greater Brooks’ Brigade) all feel. We mourned his illness and his death and are now mourning the “betrayal” from our government (in turning away K2 veterans and their families in crisis).
On that solemn note, do you know yet if my presence would be helpful in DC, on the news segment, or with the House Oversight and Reform Committee? If so, I want to do more “homework^ on my part so that I can speak to the subject well. Further, I need to tell my school one way or another if I am leaving on a jet plane (Haha) as there are lesson plans to be written!
Tim, who is never more than a heartbeat away, is leading me on this journey alongside the men and women of K2 — -he would fight for K2 veterans and families if he were here today. Our four amazing children, now grown and formed by loss, are heartened by who their father was and what he stood for, and thus, I march with my K2 family, with my children’s support, wearing heels in place of their father’s size 14 Army boots.
Duty. Honor. Country.
Fundraising for Stronghold Freedom Foundation
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K2 Military Veterans, Widow Share Stories of Deadly Exposure with Lawmakers, ABC News 2–27–2020
Toxic exposures of post-9/11 service members revealed in declassified K2 documents, Washington Examiner 07/11/2020
Military knew as many as 75% of forces at Uzbek base would be at risk for toxic air, McClatchy 07/09/2020
DOD knew K2 troops were exposed to a cancer-causing toxins; VA continues to deny care, Stars and Stripes 07/09/2020
VA agrees to study cancers, illnesses tied to military deployment to toxic Uzbek base, McClatchy 4–27–2020
Veteran Illness from Post-9/11 Service at Secret Uzbek Base Inadequately Addressed, Lawmakers Say, Washington Examiner 3–8–2020
Congressman who also served at toxic ‘black goo’ base reveals his own cancer fight, Newsbreak 2–27–2020
Military showers had cyanide at ‘black goo’ base. New bill could help those veterans, McClatchy 2–26–2020
K2 veterans demand investigation into deadly exposure: ‘Congress needs to act’, ABC News 02–14–2020
Toxic black goo base used by U.S. had enriched uranium. More veterans report cancer, McClatchy 2–3–2020