Ryan Chiao, Senior Photographer

Students at the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense compelling the agency to release documents containing vital information about veterans’ exposure to toxic substances and pollutants during service. 

The complaint was filed on April 3 on behalf of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and the Stronghold Freedom Foundation. Plaintiffs allege that veterans who passed through the Karshi-Khanabad — more commonly referred to as K2 — military base in the early stages of the war in Afghanistan were routinely exposed to toxic substances that continue to have ongoing effects on their health nearly decades later. 

“To make the stakes clear: Karshi-Khanabad veterans have expressed that their bodies are falling apart, and the information in the Defendant’s possession is crucial to their medical treatment,” the lawsuit read. “They cannot afford any further delay.” 

For years, the K2 air base in Uzbekistan served as an entry point for American soldiers deployed to Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. The K2 base had previously been used by the Soviet Armed Forces as a disposal site for aviation maintenance solvents and chemicals. 

The first boots on the ground at K2 were tasked with digging berms — level spaces between a defensive wall and an adjacent ditch — to improve the camp’s security. While on this assignment, reports trickled in of soldiers fainting after standing next to trenches “filled with pools of black goo.” 

“The people who serve at K2 two were literally the front of the line when our nation needed our military the most, and they did their job and put themselves in an immense amount of danger,” said Mike Sullivan LAW ’24, one of the students working on the case. “And yet, from many of them, the biggest danger that they faced was not in combat in Afghanistan. It was the ground that they slept on, or the water that they drank or the air that they breathed.”

Sullivan, alongside collaborators Derek Nelson LAW ’25 and Grace Fenwick LAW ’24, explained that their primary concern was getting the Department of Defense to release relevant health records. While they did not speculate as to why the DoD had not met their deadline for a previously-filed Freedom of Information Act Request, they noted that filing the lawsuit might help draw the agency’s attention to the matter.

All three students emphasized that they were prepared to litigate the case but also recognized the amount of resources and time — time that many of their clients did not have — that it would take to go through the courtroom. They explained that ideally, the filing of the claim would prompt the DoD to turn over the files without further legal action. 

“What we’re hoping that the DoD will do the right thing, and release these documents, so that this doesn’t have to evolve,” Nelson said. 

Fenwick went on to explain that the process of building the case had relied heavily on crowdsourcing from veterans who served at K2 at the time. Because the DoD has not cooperated with previous investigations into soldiers’ exposure to toxic chemicals, the plaintiffs had to rely on other soldiers’ accounts to estimate the number of veterans who had passed through K2. 

Based on their crowdsourcing, the plaintiffs claim 15,777 soldiers were potentially exposed to toxic substances during their deployment. 

Nelson and Sullivan are both veterans themselves, which they highlighted as a reason why they were initially drawn to the work of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Fenwick, who is not a veteran, professed a personal commitment to securing protections for people who “put it all on the line for our country.” 

Nelson shared that he was a member of the United States Army Special Forces, better known as the “Green Berets,” which was the group that was initially deployed to K2 at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. 

“In a broad sense, this kind of feels like a full circle moment for me, coming back to the start of Afghanistan having served there near the end,” Nelson said. “And the fact that there are still issues that are unaddressed for those who served at the beginning of this war: that’s part of my community and part of my military legacy.” 

The War in Afghanistan started in 2001.

Ines Chomnalez writes for the University desk covering Yale Law School. She previously wrote for the Arts desk. Ines is a sophomore in Pierson College majoring in History and Cognitive Science.