The installation of a solar-powered medical oxygen system at a hospital in central Somalia is proving effective in saving lives, Somali and World Health Organization doctors said. 

The innovative solar oxygen system, the first of its kind in Somalia, was installed at Hanaano hospital, in the central town of Dhusamareb a year ago. Doctors say the system is having an impact and helping save the lives of very young patients.    

“This innovation is giving us promise and hopes,” says Dr. Mamunur Rahman Malik, WHO Somalia Representative.  

Malik says 171 patients received oxygen at the hospital from the solar-powered system from February to October last year. Of these 163 patients (95.3%) fully recovered and were discharged from the hospital. Only three patients died, and five other patients were referred to other hospitals.  

Malik said every year some 15,000 to 20,000 deaths occur in Somalia among children under five years of age due to pneumonia. He says pneumonia is the deadliest disease among children under the age of five in the country. Until now, health authorities had not had access to an intervention that could reduce deaths from childhood pneumonia.  

Dr. Mohamed Abdi, the director of Hanaano hospital, said the innovation is making a difference.    

“It has helped a lot, it has saved more than a hundred people who received the service,” he told VOA Somali.    

“It was a problem for the children under one year and the children who are born six months to get enough oxygen. Now we are not worried about oxygen availability if the electricity goes out because there are the oxygen concentrators.”

Abdi said it was difficult for doctors to save the lives of children born prematurely at the hospital before the installation of the system. The new system helps maintain high oxygen saturation levels of patients.  

Abdiaziz Omar Abdi was a child admitted to the hospital on January 16 with severe pneumonia and was struggling to breathe normally. The oxygen rate in his body had dropped to 60%, Abdi said.    

Doctors immediately put him on oxygen along with ampicillin and dexamethasone medications. When discharged three days later, he was breathing normally. His oxygen was up to 90%.  

“I came because my child was unwell, he was not breathing properly, he was not breastfeeding,” says relieved mother Fadumo Ahmed Ali.    

“Now he is breastfeeding. He is feeling well.”  

Abdiaziz received the treatment at no cost to his family.    

Malik said the oxygen is being used to treat a wide range of medical conditions — asphyxia, pneumonia, injuries, trauma, and road traffic accidents.

“We have seen in other countries that use of solar-powered medical oxygen (if applied in a timely manner) can save up to 35% of deaths from childhood pneumonia,” he said.    

Malik said if this innovation is used widely in Somalia, it can save the lives of at least 7,000 children who die “needlessly” due to pneumonia.    

The initiative to install bio-medical equipment that uses solar energy at Hanaano hospital emerged during the height of COVID-19 in 2020, at a time when people were dying due to respiratory problems. Hospitals were unable to keep up with the amount of patients and the cost of a cylinder of oxygen rose to between $400 to $600. 

“At the beginning of this pandemic we have seen that only 20% of hospitals or health facilities in Somalia had access to limited, very limited supply of oxygen,” Malik said.    

“If you look at the current situation, as of today Somalia needs close to 3,000 or 4000 cubic meters of oxygen per day. So, oxygen was the biggest need in all the hospitals.”  

Doctors said the solar system can also provide electricity to hospitals that need it. Solar power can also help provide energy for refrigeration needed to store vaccines or drugs at a low temperature, doctors said.  

This report originated in VOA Somali Service’s “Investigative Dossier” program. 

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Scientists and health officials around the world are keeping their eyes on a descendant of the omicron variant that has been found in at least 40 countries, including the United States. 

This version of the coronavirus, which scientists call BA.2, is widely considered stealthier than the original version of omicron because certain genetic traits make it somewhat harder to detect. Some scientists worry it could also be more contagious.

But they say there’s a lot they still don’t know about it, including whether it evades vaccines better or causes more severe disease. 

Where has it spread? 

Since mid-November, more than three dozen countries have uploaded nearly 15,000 genetic sequences of BA.2 to GISAID, a global platform for sharing coronavirus data. As of Tuesday morning, 96 of those sequenced cases came from the U.S. 

“Thus far, we haven’t seen it start to gain ground” in the U.S., said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas, which has identified three cases of BA.2.

The mutant appears much more common in Asia and Europe. In Denmark, it made up 45% of all COVID-19 cases in mid-January, up from 20% two weeks earlier, according to Statens Serum Institut, which falls under the Danish Ministry of Health. 

What’s known about this version of the virus? 

BA.2 has lots of mutations. About 20 of them in the spike protein that studs the outside of the virus are shared with the original omicron. But it also has additional genetic changes not seen in the initial version.

It’s unclear how significant those mutations are, especially in a population that has encountered the original omicron, said Dr. Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

For now, the original version, known as BA.1, and BA.2 are considered subsets of omicron. But global health leaders could give it its own Greek letter name if it is deemed a globally significant “variant of concern.” 

The quick spread of BA.2 in some places raises concerns it could take off. 

“We have some indications that it just may be as contagious or perhaps slightly more contagious than (original) omicron since it’s able to compete with it in some areas,” Long said. “But we don’t necessarily know why that is.” 

An initial analysis by scientists in Denmark shows no differences in hospitalizations for BA.2 compared with the original omicron. Scientists there are still looking into this version’s infectiousness and how well current vaccines work against it. It’s also unclear how well treatments will work against it. 

Doctors also don’t yet know for sure if someone who’s already had COVID-19 caused by omicron can be sickened again by BA.2. But they’re hopeful, especially that a prior omicron infection might lessen the severity of disease if someone later contracts BA.2.

The two versions of omicron have enough in common that it’s possible that infection with the original mutant “will give you cross-protection against BA.2,” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, an infectious diseases expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Scientists will be conducting tests to see if antibodies from an infection with the original omicron “are able to neutralize BA.2 in the laboratory and then extrapolate from there,” he said. 

How concerned are health agencies? 

The World Health Organization classifies omicron overall as a variant of concern, its most serious designation of a coronavirus mutant, but it doesn’t single out BA.2 with a designation of its own. Given its rise in some countries, however, the agency says investigations of BA.2 “should be prioritized.” 

The U.K. Health Security Agency, meanwhile, has designated BA.2 a “variant under investigation,” citing the rising numbers found in the U.K. and internationally. Still, the original version of omicron remains dominant in the U.K.

Why is it harder to detect? 

The original version of omicron had specific genetic features that allowed health officials to rapidly differentiate it from delta using a certain PCR test because of what’s known as “S gene target failure.” 

BA.2 doesn’t have this same genetic quirk. So on the test, Long said, BA.2 looks like delta. 

“It’s not that the test doesn’t detect it; it’s just that it doesn’t look like omicron,” he said. “Don’t get the impression that ‘stealth omicron’ means we can’t detect it. All of our PCR tests can still detect it.” 

What should you do to protect yourself? 

Doctors advise the same precautions they have all along: Get vaccinated and follow public health guidance about wearing masks, avoiding crowds and staying home when you’re sick. 

“The vaccines are still providing good defense against severe disease, hospitalization and death,” Long said. “Even if you’ve had COVID-19 before — you’ve had a natural infection — the protection from the vaccine is still stronger, longer lasting and actually … does well for people who’ve been previously infected.” 

The latest version is another reminder that the pandemic hasn’t ended. 

“We all wish that it was over,” Long said, “but until we get the world vaccinated, we’re going to be at risk of having new variants emerge.” 

 

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A devil-horned newt, drought-resilient bamboo and a monkey named after a volcano were among 224 new species discovered in the Greater Mekong region in 2020, a conservation group said on Wednesday, despite the “intense threat” of habitat loss. 

The discoveries listed in a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) include a new rock gecko found in Thailand, a mulberry tree species in Vietnam, and a big-headed frog in Vietnam and Cambodia that is already threatened by deforestation. 

The 224 discoveries underlined the rich biodiversity of the Mekong region, which encompasses Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and was testament to the resilience of nature in surviving in fragmented and degraded natural habitats, WWF said. 

“These species are extraordinary, beautiful products of millions of years of evolution, but are under intense threat, with many species going extinct even before they are described,” said K. Yoganand, WWF-Greater Mekong’s regional lead for wildlife and wildlife crime. 

The area is home to some of the world’s most endangered species, at risk of habitat destruction, diseases from human activities and the illegal wildlife trade. 

A United Nations report last year said wildlife trafficking in Southeast Asia was creeping back after a temporary disruption from coronavirus restrictions, which saw countries shut borders and tighten surveillance. 

 

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Uganda on Monday lifted its two-year COVID-19 curfew, allowing bars and nightspots to re-open. Excited revelers celebrated the end of one of the world’s longest lockdowns.

A reveler who only identified herself as Peace said she has been drinking every night of the lockdown. 

Uganda imposed the nighttime curfew in March 2020 in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which has led to about 3,500 deaths in the country. 

Every night, businesses had to shut down at 7, and no cars were allowed on the streets. 

Peace tells VOA that during the lockdown, she ventured into bars owned by government employees that continued to operate in secret but charged high prices for beer. 

Excited, she said she is happy she can now drink at her favorite local bar. 

“But I’m glad that they opened,” Peace said. “I can manage to go out. I can freely move with a boda. Or I can drive. Like here, three beers at ten thousand. So, if I move out with fifty thousand, I can spend the whole night.” 

The government lifted the curfew on Monday, but some restrictions remain.Anyone wandering into a bar or restaurant must wear a mask and show their COVID vaccination card.

Fred Enanga, the Uganda Police spokesperson, cautioned the public to adhere to the health and safety protocols if they do not want to return to curfew. 

“Therefore, it is important that all proprietors and managers in night life and the night economy carefully manage the reopening of their business in the safest possible way,” Enanga said. “Where possible they can have ventilation systems in all venues, Sanitation stations throughout the venues.” 

Chris, a manager at the High Five bar in Kampala, is hoping to recover the losses he has incurred in the last two years. Monday’s business was disappointing, he said – he didn’t get as many customers as he wished.

The real challenge, he said, could be implementing the safety measures. 

“It has been two long years without operating. It is difficult to really tell everybody, show me your vaccination card or certificate,” Chris said. “Nonetheless, we have sanitizer, all the waitresses are vaccinated and we believe we are ready.” 

As Uganda attempts to return to normalcy, including the night life, statistics from the Ministry of Health show that as of Sunday, the country had recorded about 160,000 cases of COVID-19.

About 12,5 million people have been vaccinated, well short of the government’s target of 20 million.

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The U.S. health regulator on Monday revised the emergency use authorizations for COVID-19 antibody treatments from Regeneron and Eli Lilly to limit their use, as the drugs are unlikely to work against the omicron variant. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said the treatments are currently not cleared for use in any U.S. states or territories but may be authorized in certain regions if they work against potential new variants. 

The agency highlighted other therapies that are expected to be effective against omicron, including a rival antibody drug from GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology as well as recently authorized antiviral pills from Pfizer and Merck & Co. 

The U.S. government in December had paused distribution of Regeneron and Lilly’s treatments and said the halt would continue until new data emerges on their efficacy against omicron. 

The highly contagious new variant was estimated to account for more than 99% of cases in the United States as of Jan. 15. 

GSK and Vir Biotech are boosting production of their drug sotrovimab to help meet soaring demand in the United States. The FDA has also expanded its approval for the use of Gilead Sciences’ antiviral COVID-19 drug remdesivir to treat non-hospitalized patients aged 12 years and above. 

The Washington Post earlier in the day reported that the FDA was expected to revise authorizations for Regeneron and Lilly’s treatments. 

A Regeneron spokesperson had said the regulator would provide any potential communication on the topic. 

Lilly had no immediate comment but pointed to its statement from December saying its antibody candidate, bebtelovimab, maintains neutralization activity against all known variants of concern, including omicron. 

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The head of the World Health Organization warned Monday that COVID-19 will be around for the foreseeable future, and everyone will have to learn to live with it. The WHO chief issued the warning at the opening of the agency’s weeklong executive board meeting.

Two years ago, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern. Then there were fewer than 100 cases and no deaths reported outside China. Those numbers now stand at nearly 350 million cases and more than 5.5 million deaths.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it is hard to know when the pandemic will end. However, while the coronavirus is circulating, he said it will continue to mutate in unpredictable and dangerous ways. 

“It is dangerous to assume that omicron will be the last variant, or that we are in the endgame. On the contrary, globally the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge,” he said.

Tedros said countries must learn to manage this deadly disease and use the knowledge gained to prepare for future pandemics. To change the course of the pandemic, he said the conditions driving it must change.

He said the acute phase of the pandemic can be ended this year if countries use all the strategies and tools available to combat COVID-19. He adds this will work only if all countries, rich and poor alike, have equitable access to vaccines, treatments, and other tools.

“Vaccines alone are not the golden ticket out of this pandemic. But there is no path out unless we achieve our shared target of vaccinating 70 percent of the population of every country by the middle of this year. We have a long way to go,” he said.

The WHO chief notes 86 countries have not been able to reach last year’s target of vaccinating 40 percent of their populations.

He warned the emergency phase of the pandemic will not end until the gap between the have and have-not countries is bridged. 

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The coast of Ghana is home to five of the world’s endangered sea turtles, which are threatened by fishing nets and poachers who sell their meat and eggs. To help revive the turtle populations, a young footballers have taken it upon themselves to guard turtle nests and rescue turtles captured by fishermen. Senanu Tord reports from Gomoa Fetteh, Ghana.

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In a California senior care community, very special pets are helping residents keep their spirits up, fight anxiety and feel loved. Officials say these animals are therapeutic, low-maintenance and never get moody. Angelina Bagdasaryan has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

Camera: Vazgen Varzhabetian             

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Comoros, the surprise package of the Africa Cup of Nations, is struggling to put a team together for their last-16 game against host nation Cameroon after 12 players and management tested positive for COVID-19, their federation announced Saturday.

The 12 positive tests include both of the Coelacanths’ fit goalkeepers, with the third goalkeeper, Salim Ben Boina already injured. Comoros is due to face Cameroon on Monday.

“The Coelacanths affected by COVID … include coach Amir Abdou, our only two goalkeepers, Moyadh Ousseini and Ali Ahamada,” the federation tweeted two days before a historic match for the Comoros who qualified for the last 16 in their first appearance at the tournament.

In a video posted on the account, general manager El Hadad Hamidi also named five outfield players who have tested positive: midfielders Nakibou Aboubakari, Yacine Bourhane, striker Mohamed M’Changama and defenders Kassim Abdallah and Alexis Souahy.

With no goalkeepers currently available for the game, the Comoros are in serious trouble.

Confederation of African Football rules for the tournament dictate that teams must play games as long as at least 11 players test negative for the coronavirus.

If no goalkeeper is available, an outfield player must stand in.

“We are trying to do everything in our power to find alternative solutions” but “without the coach, without major players and especially without our only two goalkeepers who remained, the situation is quite complicated,” admitted Hamidi.

The Comoros, representing a tiny island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, snatched their qualification to everyone’s surprise by beating Ghana 3-2 and advancing as one of the best third-placed sides. 

 

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 Anti-vaccine activists are set to rally Sunday in Washington at the Lincoln Memorial.The anti-vaccine argument has taken hold among various American groups, including politicians, school officials, professional athletes and health care workers. Public health officials say about 20% of U.S. adults are unvaccinated.

COVID vaccine passport protests were held in several European capitals Saturday.

Thousands of people turned out in Stockholm to demonstrate against the vaccine passes needed to go to indoor sites where there are 50 or more people.

Protesters took to the streets of Paris to demonstrate against the new COVID pass set to go into effect Monday that will curtail the activities of the unvaccinated, restricting their ability to travel and go to entertainment sites, including bars, movie theaters and sports events.

Demonstrators in Helsinki protested the vaccination passes that can be required to enter restaurants and other events. The protesters in Finland’s capital also demonstrated against the Finnish government’s move giving local and regional authorities the ability to enact wide-ranging measures to combat the omicron variant, according to The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. state of Virginia, a woman has been charged with a misdemeanor after threatening to bring guns to her children’s school because of a school board’s continued school mask mandate.

Amelia King said Thursday at a school board meeting, “My children will not come to school on Monday with a mask on, all right? . . . That’s not happening, and I will bring every single gun loaded and ready . . .I’ll see you all on Monday.” School officials alerted authorities about King’s comments.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported early Sunday that it was recorded 349.3 million COVID infections, 5.6 million deaths. The center said nearly 10 billion COVID vaccines have been administered.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press. 

 

 

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has canceled her wedding as the nation imposes new restrictions to slow the community spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant, she told reporters.

New Zealand will impose mask rules and limit gathering from midnight on Sunday after a cluster of nine cases of the omicron variant showed community transmission from the North to South islands after a wedding.

A family traveled by plane from the North Island capital of Auckland to a wedding in the South Island attended by 100 people. The family and a flight attendant tested positive.

New Zealand would move to a red setting under its COVID-19 protection framework, with more mask wearing, and a cap of 100 customers indoors in hospitality settings and events such as weddings, or 25 people if venues are not using vaccine passes, Ardern said.

“My wedding will not be going ahead,” she told reporters, adding she was sorry for anyone caught up in a similar scenario.

Asked by reporters how she felt about her wedding cancellation, Ardern replied: “Such is life.”

She added, “I am no different to, dare I say it, thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts felt by the pandemic, the most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one sometimes when they are gravely ill. That will far, far outstrip any sadness I experience.” 

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Residents living near Karshi-Khanabad harbor have fond memories of the American soldiers who served at the Uzbek air base widely known as K2 between 2001 and 2005, describing the period as one of their happiest times. But for many of the Americans, lingering affection for the residents is outweighed by persistent debilitating ailments that they attribute to toxic and radioactive waste at the base. 

“The American period was a wonderful time,” said Oysaot Toparova, a resident now in her late 70s who served for many years as a politician in the adjacent village of Khanabad. “U.S. military visiting our schools, meeting the community, we loved it. I think Uzbekistan and the U.S. got the best out of that cooperation.” 

Mark Jackson, board chairman of the Stronghold Freedom Foundation,  which represents retired and active American military personnel, also describes “wonderful memories of Uzbekistan.” He says he interacted with locals daily, went to homes, enjoyed tea and meals, and traveled across the country. He is still fascinated with its history and culture. 

But, he told VOA, his time at K2 has left him with another legacy, one of relentless illness and pain that he blames on environmental hazards left over from the Soviet era in Uzbekistan, a connection he has found frustratingly difficult to substantiate. 

“I cannot provide you with hard facts,” he said in an interview. “The facts I have are my body and the tombstones. We were ignored for 20 years until we made enough noise to force Washington to acknowledge that people went to a place that the government itself admitted in 2001 and 2004 was environmentally degraded and polluted.”

The membership of his organization includes “some profoundly ill people,” Jackson said. 

“Wars are fought with bullets and bombs. This is a very slow-moving bullet, moving through my body. I’ll give myself an injection in the belly every day for the next two years, because I have the bones of an 80-year-old woman, on top of a dying thyroid and a gastrointestinal tract that mimics that of an 80-year-old man.” 

Recently revealed U.S. documents confirm that the Pentagon suspected K2 could have hazardous chemicals left over from its days as a Soviet military facility. Now, Johns Hopkins University is conducting an 18-month long longitudinal epidemiological study among K2 veterans, following on an executive order by former U.S. President Donald Trump. 

 

‘Nothing of concern’ 

But during a recent visit to Khanabad by VOA, residents said they were perplexed by the American complaints. They noted that thousands of Uzbek air force members and civilian workers still work at the site, and about 10,000 people live nearby. 

“We live next to the base,” said Dostmurod Odayev, a community leader in his 60s who describes K2 as an integral part of life in the region. “Our people work there. We have military residents serving there. I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick because of environmental issues or radiation at K2.” 

Zoyir Mirzayev, who until last month governed the Kashkadarya region, which includes the air base, told VOA that local authorities had not found evidence that would back up Jackson’s complaints. 

“We are aware of these American claims,” he said. “We looked at environmental and health data but found nothing of concern and don’t believe K2 has radiation or deadly chemicals.”

Odayev pointed out that the area around the base is prime farmland, and families were wrapping up the harvest beneath the constant roar of aircraft when VOA visited. While access to the base was not permitted, there was no visible evidence of a toxic environment amid the scent of fresh roses blooming in winter and livestock enjoying the surrounding pastures. 

Ovul Nazarov, 61, said “they seemed to enjoy their time in Uzbekistan, so these claims sound strange to us,” he said.

Quvvat Khidirov, another retired Uzbek officer, with nearly 30 years of service at K2, also does not understand “American complaints.”

“I worked in a really old building at K2 for more than two decades. If the site were toxic with all those chemicals we’ve been hearing about from American colleagues, I should know many sick people here, but I don’t. I’m in good health myself.” 

Misqol Polvonova, 62, calls herself a K2 neighbor. She raised six children across the street from the base. “We used to watch American jets flying low. You know, we spend a lot of time outside. We sleep in the open air all summer. All my children are healthy. I have 15 grandkids.” 

Such accounts do not convince Jackson, who doubts that Uzbeks can speak freely about an issue as sensitive as hazardous waste at a strategic military facility. His group has set up a private Facebook page where Uzbeks are invited to share their experiences and connect with American K2 veterans. 

“Maybe they know somebody who died of a very strange cancer or brain disorder, or maybe they have chronic gastrointestinal issues or some of their other organs are failing, or they have anemia. And these have just become part of life, as they’re part of mine,” he said. 

Jackson argued that without the results of the ongoing longitudinal study as well as testing of air and soil, an objective review of historical records, and permission for scientists to report without interference, Uzbekistan has no credibility.

He said the point is not to bring shame upon Uzbeks. “The shame belongs to the Soviets who destroyed the environment, dumping petroleum products and radiation and asbestos into the soil.”

US government’s response 

Since Jackson’s movement started, some things have changed. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has surveyed military exposures on K2, outlining potential threats including jet fuel, which “may have occurred as a result of a leaking Soviet-era underground jet fuel distribution system,” and volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and dust. 

The VA also mentions depleted uranium, noting that “Soviet missiles were destroyed there, contaminating some areas of surface dirt with low-level, radioactive, depleted uranium.” Asbestos and lead are listed as having been present at K2 structures while Americans were there. 

Stronghold Freedom Foundation highlights that 15,000-16,000 military personnel were deployed to K2, with about 1,300 service members present at any time. The group argues, based on its findings, findings (((https://strongholdfreedomfoundation.org/k2-facts/#documents-facts))) that at least 75% of those deployed only to Uzbekistan have developed serious illnesses. 

Yet veterans complain of “endless paperwork” required to get proper treatment. They want recognition that their illnesses are connected to their service in K2. 

U.S. Representative Mark Green, a K2 veteran and Republican from Tennessee, co-sponsored a bipartisan bill in February 2020 directing the U.S. secretary of defense to recognize K2 veterans’ “severe and deadly service-connected illnesses.” 

That and other legislative efforts in 2021 did not move forward, but the veterans still hope for congressional action. They note that their cause has support from lawmakers as ideologically opposed as Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Republican Senator Marco Rubio. 

Gillibrand and Rubio “could not be farther apart politically yet stood together on K2. They know what’s right,” Jackson said. 

One of the biggest gains for K2 veterans has been a House Oversight committee decision to declassify about 400 pages of information on the base.

“This will never be about money, but if money comes from recognition for the few that deserve it, so be it,” Jackson said. 

“Every single person who knows anything about Capitol Hill told us it was too expensive,” said Jackson, who spoke at hearings and engaged lawmakers. His response: “If you build two less F-35s, we’ll be good.”

Jackson also said his grandfather served as a colonel in the Korean War and his father was a Vietnam veteran. 

“I remember their complaints about how the government treated them. … We’ve been in armed conflict with somebody since before we were a country. But we consistently forget the people who fought those wars.”

 

 

 

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