Bill Liebenow, U.S. Air Force
I spent a little more than two months at K2 in late 2001.
About 2 years after my deployment, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in and around my left tonsil. Chemotherapy treatment went relatively smoothly, but after just a few radiation treatments, I was suffering severe burns on the left side of my head and neck. I was in constant pain, unable to eat. The plan was for me to get 25 treatments, but the burns on my neck and sores in my mouth got so bad the doctor ultimately decided to stop treatment after 20.
A year later, I was diagnosed with radiation-induced neuropathy in my cervical spine from the radiation treatment. Over the next two years, I tried numerous treatments including heavy steroids, different blood thinners, Botox injections, various medications, and more than 75 hyperbaric oxygen treatments to slow the progressive paralysis and loss of feeling below my neck.
By the end of 2007, the radiation effects seemed to have leveled off, but then I developed osteo-radio-necrosis — radiation damage–to my jawbone. After two more years, and 5 different jaw surgeries, to try to fix the problem, I was left with a titanium bar for a jaw bone, and I lost the ability to swallow. So I’ve been eating everything through a tube since 2009.
In 2015, I got a bad sunburn on the spot where I was radiated. It blistered up, never fully healed, and eventually developed into skin cancer. The skin cancer was successfully removed, but the resulting wound got infected with staph. The infection moved into my bones. So I got surgery to remove my left arm, 3 ribs, most of the left clavicle, and scapula. Since all this began, I’ve felt like my medical problems were pretty unique. But last year, I found the Stronghold Freedom Foundation and realized that I am not the only one. K2 veterans are 500% more likely to develop cancer and 75% of us will develop some type of K2 related illness in our lifetimes.
Let me tell you how lucky I am. I was in the military when I went through cancer treatment, and I was medically retired. So, my disabilities are service-connected, which means I get great health insurance. All of my medical issues were covered by insurance. Thousands of veterans who were at K2 — who were there much longer than I was — got out of the military before their problems started. Their disabilities are not service-connected. No insurance. They cannot work. So, they don’t get all the fancy doctors and procedures I got.
My father did two tours in Vietnam with the Marines and was regularly exposed to Agent Orange. It took decades for the VA to recognize the harmful effects of Agent Orange and give Vietnam veterans the coverage they needed. But by that time, countless veterans were already dead. How many K2 veterans will we lose before the VA recognizes our sacrifice?