September 18th marks the 70th birthday of the United States Air Force, which was founded in 1947. Aircraft had been part of the armed services since 1909, when the U.S. military purchased its very first airplane. The air division went under various names during the next few decades, including Aviation Section, Signal Corps, and United States Army Air Service. With the creation of U.S. Department of Defense, however, the armed services were reorganized so that the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force were considered distinct branches of equal importance.
During the past 7 decades, those who have served in the Air Force have revolutionized the way that combat is conducted, shifting the battleground to the skies. Members of the Air Force have always been engaged with the latest technologies, testing how fast, how high, and how long the human body can endure flight.
Flying on the Cutting Edge of Technology
Air Force personnel have also been instrumental in developing a range of technologies, not only ones to be used in combat, but to further our understanding of the sciences. The Air Force was the first to develop an aircraft that could break the sound barrier, and we can now fly 5 times faster than the speed of sound. Their scientists have also been responsible for developing GPS systems, exploring options for using laser technology in defense systems, and building robots that can be used in combat situations in the air and on the ground, decreasing the chance of loss of human life.
In recent years, the Air Force has also started to deploy unmanned planes that are operated by a number of individuals. These craft are able to remain in flight for hours to conduct surveillance, or undertake combat missions. Air Force pilots have also served an important humanitarian role in delivering supplies and food aid to people around the world who are in need.
Yet while we honor those who have served in the Air Force and other branches of the armed services on Veterans and Memorial Day, we forget that the some of their most difficult battles have been fought not in war time, but after returning home.
The Quiet Combatant
Asbestos is most commonly known as an enemy of those in the construction and shipbuilding industries. A naturally-occurring mineral that was long used in building materials for its heat-resistant properties, asbestos was also used in clutches and brakes, in doors and walls as a flame retardant, as insulation, and to make fire-resistant clothing.
In the early 1970s, however, scientists discovered that asbestos was a deadly carcinogen. Breathing airborne asbestos fibers could lead to malignant mesothelioma, a disease that developed slowly over the course of 2 to 5 decades. While construction workers are generally considered the most frequent victims of mesothelioma, the disease has also exacted a heavy toll on members of the U.S. Military.
Around 8 percent of the U.S. population has served in the armed forces, but veterans account for 30 percent of the deaths from mesothelioma. Often these individuals are exposed during shipyard work or other construction projects. Among Air Force members, there is a high risk of exposure when maintaining aircraft and repairing brakes. While this attention to detail is key to flight safety, mechanics performing these important checks may not realize the impact their work may have on their long-term health.
Remembering Their Service, Protecting Their Health
As we commemorate 7 decades of the U.S. Air Force, we celebrate the women and men who have defended our country, provided humanitarian aid nationally and globally, and developed technologies that we use every day. Most importantly, as we honor these service women and men, we cannot forget the health battles they continue to fight. Just as they have devoted their careers to improving our lives, we must assure their lives are equally protected.