U.S. military veterans account for an estimated 30 percent — a disproportionate amount — of all cases of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer with no cure.
These veterans should not be forgotten.
Mesothelioma is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos, which was used so extensively throughout the 20th century, particularly by all branches of the military.
And while asbestos did help to protect our soldiers — by strengthening and fireproofing most everything it touched — it also was highly toxic for those who worked with or lived with the asbestos products. The Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps all used the products that led to various asbestos-related diseases.
These veterans were targeted unknowingly long ago. They deserve special attention today, which may include disability benefits, VA health care and an improved housing assistance fund.
The brave men and women who sacrificed to protect our country deserve a dignified place to live. Good housing is part of the respect and gratitude to which they should be entitled, particularly if hit with this deadly, debilitating cancer many years after leaving the military.
Mesothelioma patients are expected to live only one to three years after a diagnosis. Some have survived four, five and six years beyond their prognosis if treated at a mesothelioma specialty center with a multidisciplinary approach.
The VA Healthcare system has two of the best mesothelioma specialists in the United States. Drs. Abraham Lebenthal in Boston and Robert Cameron in Los Angeles are often referred to veterans from across the country.
Although the once-prevalent use of asbestos in the military was significantly reduced in recent decades, the incidence rate of disease remains high among military veterans, stemming from the long latency period (20-50 years) between exposure and diagnosis.
Navy veterans were hit the hardest, which was no surprise because ship builders used asbestos everywhere — from bow to stern — until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulated its use in the mid-1970s.
Even then, those ships were used in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving a lasting trail of toxicity. There was asbestos in the boiler rooms, engine rooms, weapons and ammunition storage rooms, and other places that needed heat resistance. Anyone who worked there was exposed.
Submarines were loaded with it. Sleeping quarters, mess halls and navigation rooms had it. Anyone who worked with the pumps, pipes, motors, condensers and compressors on ships and submarines was vulnerable. Gaskets, valves and cables also contained it.
Those in the Navy who were helping to repair or renovate a ship often inhaled asbestos fibers. As the ships aged, the asbestos parts became brittle and the fibers broke down and became airborne.
Servicemen working below deck were the most vulnerable. The boiler tenders, ship fitters, welders and engine mechanics were at highest risk.
Thirty and forty years later, doctors are diagnosing these men with an incurable cancer. It’s important to guarantee they have the resources to find a proper and safe place to live worthy of their service to the nation.
Tim Povtak is a content writer for The Mesothelioma Center and Asbestos.com, an informational source for mesothelioma patients and families.