My name is Kim Brooks, and I am a K2 widow and advocate for the 11,000 servicemembers and contractors, their caretakers, and family members, whose lives were forever altered by their presence at “K2”, Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, an abandoned toxic Russian airbase, between October 2001 and March 2005.
My husband, Lieutenant Colonel Timothy P. Brooks (USMA ’89), deployed to K2 in the fall of 2001 and died of an aggressive, stage three astrocytoma, Memorial Day weekend, May 29, 2004, just 26 months after returning home, leaving me and our beautiful children, family members, and friends devastated. Below is my memory of June 4, 2004, the day we laid Tim to rest.
A haunting wail pierced the still June air of Arlington National Cemetery, first low and distant, but it only swelled and grew louder, almost insistent, in its clear and present anguish. My brain numbed and blanketed by trauma and grief, awakened to this sorrowful keening and wondered at its source as the crisply folded symbol of our nation was tenderly placed onto my shaking lap. My four disconsolate young children, unsure and unsettled at the unknown ahead of them, looked from the casket holding their father to my tear-stained face and closed-shut eyes as I took hold of the stitched red, white, and blue layers of fabric. The Old Guard colonel, handing me our nation’s symbol, felt our pain — he knew Tim and me and our family — worked with Tim, respected Tim, and yet, I could not process his words of sympathy, as that wail became all too present in the heavy and oppressive Virginia air. And still, I recognized all too well, the litany of words that he spoke to me in the stillness, the cookie-cutter condolences that I had heard through the years in my recurring nightmare as a military wife and mother.
Brand new and with expertly tucked folds, the weight of the countless men and women who had fought and died in service for all, lay heavy in my lap. Brushing my fingertips over the thick, cottoned flag, I tried to comprehend this new truth — this raw and biting pain that encompassed me down to my core. And then, as if ripped from my numbness, the “blanket” was no longer there cocooning me from my reality — the haunting sound became fully realized. I opened my watery eyes and looked down at the weighty red, white, and blue triangle, now wet and salty with my tears, laying there in stark contrast to my black dress. My eyes lifted to Tim’s silver casket suspended over the soil that has honored the souls of more than 400,000 of our nation’s finest. My pain had been exposed and lay bare among the aged white tombstones. Seated on a plastic and metal chair, I had, in that moment, awakened to a new reality: I was a widow, my four children were fatherless, and that haunting wail, that sound that pierced these hallowed grounds, came from the depths of my being. No longer, could I hold it in.
It has been sixteen years since we buried Tim, his burial only one day before our daughter’s 12th birthday. I can no longer be silent to this story of K2 and our 11,000 men and women who were asked to marinate in its toxic waste as they defended our nation. The suffering that has resulted is immeasurable and must be reconciled. The recurring nightmare of burying my husband became my family’s reality and the reality for far too many.
How many is “too many?”
My “too many” is 1.