Memorial Day may be a time for parades and picnics, but most importantly it is a day to remember those members of the military who gave their lives for our country. This holiday began as an occasion to commemorate those who died in the United States Civil War. For over a century and a half, it has marked a day to remember those who lost their lives in service.
At the same time, we cannot forget those in the military who have returned home to fight other battles. Americans have realized that the sacrifices made by those in our Armed Services often continue for years following their discharge. Some veterans may suffer from invisible illnesses such as PTSD and depression. Others fall victim to fatal diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used for decades to insulate and fire-proof goods such as vehicle parts, construction materials and fire-retardant clothing. Yet asbestos manufacturers concealed dangerous knowledge about their asbestos-containing products. When released into the air, asbestos fibers can be inhaled and trapped in the lungs, leading to cancers that appear 20-50 years after exposure.
The sad truth is that because asbestos was an inexpensive and effective insulator, it was used widely across the U.S. military. This popularity meant that in the decades from the 1930s to the 1970s, military personnel and their families were often exposed to asbestos. A tragic 33% of all mesothelioma victims are U.S. military veterans.
The hazards of asbestos became more widely known during the 1980s. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) took action to remove much of the asbestos from military vehicles, buildings and shipyards. At the same time, thousands of people working in and around our armed services had already been put at risk for developing life-threatening illnesses.
U.S. Air Force
Asbestos was used as a construction material on U.S. Air Force bases, including in hangars, offices and barracks. Often it was incorporated into drywall, insulation, paint, floor tiles, cement, roofing and siding.
When buildings that contain asbestos are renovated or remodeled, fibers can be released into the air. Most of the asbestos was removed from military bases in the 1980s, but some areas within these bases were inaccessible or impractical to repair.
As late as 2010, the Pentagon issued warnings to members of the armed services related to possible asbestos exposure at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington after old buildings were demolished.
Asbestos was also used in several different kinds of aircraft parts, including cargo bay insulation, cockpit heating systems, jet exhausts and engine heat shields and insulation. Pilots may have inhaled degrading asbestos fibers around the cockpit. Maintenance workers were also in danger, since they repaired heating and cooling systems, engines, wiring and other asbestos-containing aircraft components.
Army construction engineers often had a high rate of asbestos exposure, because asbestos was used in building materials. Army mechanics who inspected and repaired engines, brake systems and clutches faced a similar danger. These parts were made with asbestos to help them withstand heat, however, after a time, they could wear down and release fibers into the air.
Army personnel involved in ground combat situations were exposed to the asbestos used in tanks, weapons and clothing. Tanks were lined with asbestos to improve their fire resistance. This insulation could degrade over time and allow asbestos fibers to be released into the enclosed environment. Additionally, personnel who handled large weapons such as missiles wore gloves and suits made of asbestos to protect themselves from the high heat.
Members of the U.S. Army continue to risk exposure when in war zones. Buildings that have been damaged during combat and were constructed using asbestos can still release the dangerous carcinogen into the air.
Among all members of the Armed Services, those who served in the Navy had the highest risk of asbestos exposure. For a period of time, the U.S. government mandated that asbestos be used in all Navy vessels. From the late 1930s through the 1970s, asbestos was used in everything from aircraft carriers to cargo ships and submarines to destroyers.
Asbestos was a key component in the construction of a ship, and was used in boilers and boiler linings, deck covers, linings for steel wall plates and doors, pumps and turbines. The mineral was also used in engine rooms, dining halls and living quarters. Navy veterans tell stories of sleeping below pipes covered with asbestos and waking to find themselves coated in dust.
Members of the U.S. Navy who oversaw the systems that kept the ship running faced particularly high rates of asbestos exposure. These included boiler technicians and machinist mates who maintained the propulsion systems, and those who oversaw the engines and turbines.
Personnel who worked in shipyards also had a daily risk of inhaling asbestos. These individuals often deconstructed and reconstructed ships, replacing and repairing asbestos-containing machinery. These individuals could also put their families at risk due to asbestos fibers carried home on their clothing.
Counting Asbestos Casualties
Beyond these three branches, members of U.S. Coast Guard had a high risk of asbestos exposure, especially those who were involved in construction projects, or as mechanics on ships or in shipyards.
In a similar fashion, those who served in U.S. Marines risked inhaling asbestos fibers since they worked with other branches of the Armed Services and used the same aircraft, ships and military vehicles and buildings.
On Memorial Day, we must remember our duty to these service people who gave so much for our country. Many veterans and their families have quietly suffered the effects of asbestos-related illnesses for decades.
Above all, we must always remember that not all who have fallen for our country have done so on the battlefield.