This is a speech given by Mark Jackson to the Gold Star Wives on February 6th, 2021.
My name is Mark T. Jackson. I am an Army combat veteran, with service in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Uzbekistan. I am a Federal Agent. I am the Legislative Director and Chairman of the Board at the Stronghold Freedom Foundation. I am a father and a grandfather and a great many other things that slowly come to form a lifetime.
Before I go into our great success as an organization, I’d like to share with you what these places that have come to define our lives were like. I find some comfort in remembering them.
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan share similar histories, generally told by its perennial conquerors whose invasions have persisted for millennia, and of which, we are one. It is a land that lurks with a patience no man might have in ten thousand lifetimes, fraught with all manner of threat and pestilence, violence, and injury. But not even the windswept ageless plain, righted by the rolling steppe and by jagged ridges and peppered with sharp stones that provide neither shelter nor sustenance could defeat a life so surely as time. Even the land and its imperceptible geologic pace is crushed under the weight of time. Everything under the sun, and then the sun, ends in time.
And ours is a shared story of time, be it well-spent, be it short, be it fleeting.
The base was officially known as Camp Stronghold Freedom, but it was known by US servicemembers as K2, so-named for the nearby villages of Karshi and Khanabad. It was located on the site of a former Soviet airbase about 100 miles north of the Afghan border.
It lay in a vast wide plain unspun from the broadening steppes and the distant teeth of faraway mountains, themselves sheathed in glaciers and capped with snow. The dust of the place diffused all the light so day and night and everything was sunless and twilit, humming generators and grey, directionless gloom. Where howling prayers on drifting winds fell from distant minarets and crouched beyond the walls.
For half a century the land had been poisoned by the Soviets. Petroleum, radiation, chemical weapons, all manner of organic and synthetic toxins allowed to coat the soil and leech into the earth.
Most days, the air was grayish-yellow and smelled of smoke and dirt and farm waste and all the filth of countless generations scattered across the land and trampled by time and circumstance and thrown into the trackless wind to be breathed and ingested by all in its path. But sometimes the sky was clear and colored by a descending veil of indigo, a gust of cleansing rain, and cotton clouds golden in the gloaming and bright in relief against the storm-darkened distance. I recall those final, golden bits of sand falling grain by grain into a waning wind, as though through an hourglass into the full ballast of the past.
Between the perimeter of the base and the gates of the city, a looming Soviet antenna – unique to the former Eastern Bloc – stood sentinel, like a rocket frozen in flight, a soaring arc towards an impossible apogee. It was a monument to the things locked deep inside the land. An artifice, a cenotaph, to the intentions and failures of man. It was a metal and concrete Icarus, brought to ground by hubris and ill-intent.
It was in this place many of us fulfilled our oath to service, unto sickness and unto death. Earth-covered bunkers with gaping metal doors crouched like monstrous frozen mouths agape, daring or damning entry, their poisonous breath spilling onto the cracked concrete runways. Signs hung atop these relics, and adjacent all sides of the camp: Radiation, Mines, Poison, Danger, Chemicals, they read. And life flowed by, oblivious, impervious, or too youthful to know the difference.
Every day I relive these moments, hoping – striving – for the better good, knowing the nadir is surely behind us. But I find myself back at K2, back in time with my brothers and sisters, back to where the sky moved across the sea of grass beyond the poison berm. It is bright and unbroken in that untrodden place amid the treetops and their clattered song and across the endless steppes. For a few precious days in the first weeks of fall, the cool, sweet wind lifted the filth and the smoke and the smolder and a crisp clarity held in a crystalline calm. Our cheeks turned red and breath sat for an instant on chapped lips like an idea forming from frameless depth and dancing for a moment between us and then, joined together, borne away in a brief, sharp wind. And for a moment, I see us – my comrades and I – in that distant, vanishing mist. We are smiling in the tapering grayish ash of dusk. Our only regret is all the things we meant to say but did not have the time. Until now.
Now is the time for action, before it is too late. Since early last year, a few of us have joined together to petition Congress, the DoD, the VA, and the President to take action. To recognize our service, which, after twenty years, is still not officially codified in US law. In that short time, we’ve testified to Congress, we’ve forced the DoD to declassify documents it held since the establishment of the base, documents that prove it was poisonous and deadly. Along the way, we were told the toxic exposure issue is too broad. We were told to wait for “good science”. We were told background radiation at rates ten times normal were safe. We were told chemical weapons were inert. We were told the burn pits’ smoke and the ash that fell like snow and coated our lungs and clothes and skin was harmless. We were told that legislation was too expensive. We were told a pine box and a flag…is cheaper than study, treatment, and care.
But we have facts. Facts are the bones upon which the muscle and skin of truth is knitted and stretched. The truth is found in the bodies of me and my comrades and in memories of the lost. The truth pumps in my chest, below my ruined thyroid. The truth moves through my anemic blood, my brittle bones, my aching guts, and my haunted dreams. The truth moves through all of us, as sure as a bullet, and just as lethal.
Congress agreed. After hearing our story, after seeing the injustice, some good has come about. We have a few laws that were passed in our favor and after ceaseless petition. They are going to study us, the living and the dead, and get their “good science”. It will take ten years. We can now join the burn pits registry and the depleted uranium follow-up. And, in his penultimate Executive Order, former President Trump directed the DoD and VA to follow their own rules and recognize K2 veterans as equivalent to their peers.
And this is only the beginning. My son-in-law is a soldier. He just returned from his first combat tour in Afghanistan, where he lived and worked near the same burn pit to which I was exposed nearly twenty years ago. The fact that these pits are still endangering our troops frames the truth.
And you can hold the truth against your chest as though your life depends on it**. Safe. Secret. Silent.
Or you can spread the truth like a seed into the air and let it fall back to the earth, covering everyone and everything.
We aimed for the sky, my friends and I, all of you, and countless others. But we ignored the horizon, that place where land and firmament meet but never touch. The endless heavens and the temporal plains upon which we all tread. That bright edge is defined by two worlds that will never touch, where all light is from and where all light goes, and justice lies between.*
This is what we demand.
*paraphrased from “Where All Light Tends To Go” by Ron Rash
**paraphrased from “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver