No group of individuals garners more respect than those who have fought for our country. Veterans of the U.S. armed forces, whether serving during time of war or time of peace, are selfless individuals who put the well-being and safety of others before their own. They are a group of brave warriors who risk their lives so that others may live.
Unfortunately, however, veterans have long been put in harm’s way in places other than on the battlefield. For decades, members of the U.S. armed forces were regularly exposed to asbestos while on active duty and, as a result, some of the highest percentages of mesothelioma can be found among those who served.
Hence, sadly, long after completing their service, seemingly without suffering injury, these individuals have died as a result of being exposed to asbestos while serving the U.S. in the Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force.
Mesothelioma is one of the most serious diseases affecting older veterans who were exposed to toxic asbestos during the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts.
That’s because the military found literally hundreds of uses for products containing the toxic mineral and many servicemen and women were exposed to it on a daily basis, inhaling the fibers, which would later turn into tumors and result in a diagnosis of mesothelioma.
Those who haven’t been diagnosed with asbestos cancer may be suffering from other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis or pleural plaques.
All branches of the military used asbestos products in some form or another. Some personnel were more likely exposed than others.
Naval veterans account for about one-third of all cases of mesothelioma diagnosed each year in the U.S., notes the American Cancer Society. This is primarily due to the abundant use of asbestos materials on U.S. warships of all kinds.
Hence, those who built the ships (including civilians) AND those who sailed aboard them were constantly exposed to asbestos.
Literally, asbestos was everywhere aboard U.S. military ships. Asbestos was primarily used as a shipboard insulator, wrapped around pipes, electrical wires, pumps, generators, boilers, and a variety of other equipment that operated at high temperatures.
However, it may have also been incorporated into materials that were used to build walls or construct floors and ceilings. Literally, there was often at least a small amount of asbestos in nearly every section of the ship, including in places like the bunk areas or the galley.
That means those who served aboard these asbestos-laden ships may have been susceptible to long periods of potential exposure. (This applies to Coast Guard personnel as well.)
In addition, a great number of veterans that were involved in the shipbuilding process regularly worked with asbestos on the job. When intact, the mineral was not dangerous, but when it was cut or sanded to fit certain applications, as it often was in shipyards, the dust flew and anyone working in the vicinity may have inhaled the toxic fibers.
Furthermore, those vets who worked in ship repair generally encountered dangerous damaged asbestos during those repairs, which they often tore out with their bare hands and without benefit of masks or respirators, usually in a hurry to complete repairs and get the ship back on the open seas.
While Army vets don’t have as high an incidence of mesothelioma as those who served in the U.S. Navy prior to about 1980, there are indeed those in the Army who suffered exposure to asbestos.
For members of the U.S. Army, exposure mostly occurred on base as asbestos was used abundantly in many military structures, generally to add insulation from extreme heat and protection from fire. In addition, some asbestos-containing products were used because they were inexpensive and could be purchased in bulk for pennies on the dollar, so to speak.
That means asbestos may have been found in just about any building on the United States army bases of old, including barracks, mess halls, officers’ quarters, ammunition storage facilities, training facilities, and other locations.
Ceiling and floor tiles, siding, cement, wall insulation…they likely all contained asbestos if they were installed prior to the end of the 1970s. Anyone who worked, slept, or ate in those facilities may have been exposed.
Furthermore, soldiers who worked on the army’s many military vehicles may also have been exposed to asbestos by way of the brakes and clutches contained within those vehicles. Many friction items once contained asbestos, and those items became especially dangerous to those working on them.
For example, a mechanic changed with the task of changing the brake pads on an army Jeep would have likely been exposed to toxic asbestos dust while performing his assigned duties.
Similar to those who served in the Army, individuals who were part of the U.S. Air Force prior to the 1970s were likely exposed to asbestos on military bases. Again, asbestos materials were found in wall insulation, floor and ceiling tiles, drywall tape, shingles and siding, and a variety of other construction products, including cement.
Though many bases have undergone asbestos abatement in the last few decades (where necessary), it was too late for many who served in the middle years of the 20th century.
In addition, braking systems for military aircraft used friction parts that contained asbestos. Just flying one of these planes may have not put pilots at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases, but those who repaired and maintained these aircraft certainly came into constant direct contact with asbestos dust.
The grinding of brakes or the manipulation of the parts in order to remove or replace them would have resulted in clouds of asbestos dust, and if mechanics weren’t wearing respirators, inhalation was almost unavoidable.
Again, as with those who served in the other branches of the armed forces of the United States, Marines were exposed to asbestos found on their assigned military bases. However, because Marines were often involved in water-based (amphibious) missions or exercises, they also came in contact with those aforementioned Navy ships, which were full of asbestos.
Hence, the Marines also have a high incidence of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Indeed, it was hard to escape asbestos exposure aboard these ships. It was literally everywhere – from the engine room to the galley – and our enlisted military members were never informed that exposure to the material was dangerous. As such, many have paid a huge price.
Asbestos in Iraq
Though asbestos use was largely curtailed in the United States in the late 1970s, there have never been any laws banning asbestos use passed in Iraq and most other Middle Eastern countries. As a result, those who have fought or are currently fighting in Iraq, Pakistan, or anywhere else in that region, may be exposed to the material.
Asbestos can be found in the military bases being used by U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq, many of which are not in top-notch condition. In addition, old structures that are being destroyed as a result of bombings can send asbestos into the air. Hence, it’s necessary for military personnel to wear the proper gear when in situations where the potential of asbestos exposure is present.
VA-related Treatment for Veterans with Mesothelioma
When a veteran has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, he usually turns to the Veterans Administration (VA) to seek medical advice. This veteran may have been to a VA facility previously for other medical issues and is comfortable with the staff and treatment provided there.
That’s fine. Many mesothelioma sufferers have received excellent treatment at the hands of the Veterans Administration and its facilities. Indeed, the Veterans Health Administration is the largest healthcare system in the U.S., with more than 150 facilities that include full-service medical centers, clinics, community living centers, domiciliaries, and more. That certainly means it’s equipped to treat cancer.
The medical centers of the VA can participate in the diagnosis of mesothelioma and then refer the eligible patient to an on-staff oncologist, thoracic surgeon, or other team member, who will confer with the patient (and his family, if applicable) to determine the best course of treatment for this particular patients.
Other Medical Options for Veterans
Of course, veterans with mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related disease do not need to limit themselves to treatment administered at a VA facility. They may wish to contact a veterans’ network to inquire as to where treatment is of high quality but, in the end, where the vet goes for care is totally up to that individual and his/her family.
There are many top-notch cancer care facilities throughout the United States that have been doing cutting edge research on the treatment of mesothelioma. Many are also involved in the latest clinical trials that are testing new drugs for the disease as well as treatments such as immunotherapy. It is important that the veteran receive the best care possible, and if that means going to a hospital other than a VA facility or traveling out of state to see an oncologist that specializes in mesothelioma, all of that should be considered.
Legal Options for Veterans
The U.S. Department of Asbestos Affairs currently recognizes mesothelioma as a service-related medical condition, and, as such, they can request benefits from the Veterans’ Administration, but only if they can prove that their disease is indeed related to the tasks they performed while serving in the U.S. military. They cannot seek funds directly from the U.S. government nor can they file suit against the government.
However, veterans MAY file suit against other responsible parties, such as the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products that they encountered during their service. By obtaining the services of an attorney, victims of mesothelioma can attempt to gain funds that will assist them in paying medical bills, make up for loss income, and provide for their family after their passing.
To forge a viable case, the veterans and asbestos exposure must be provably related to their military service.