Every year, around 3,200 U.S. citizens are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma: a deadly form of cancer caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos. This horrific cancer can remain undetected for decades, often 20 to 50 years. Workers that are at the highest risk of asbestos exposure include some of the most important members of our society: construction workers, firemen, and U.S. veterans — especially veterans who did their service in the Navy.
In fact, the armed forces make up 30 percent of all mesothelioma deaths in America. And it’s no wonder that a staggering portion of this percentage is made up of Navy veterans. Between 1930 and 1970, virtually every naval ship contained several tons of asbestos insulation and fire proofing.
In celebrating the U.S. Navy’s birthday today, it’s important to not only applaud the service of our Navy veterans, but also to recognize – and act upon – the health concerns that plague these veterans to this very day.
The Fight Goes On
Historically, the U.S. Navy was careful to avoid fires aboard ships with one of the most flame-resistant materials around: asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring material that was at the time thought to be harmless and even miraculously useful given its fireproof properties. But its microscopic fibers, when inhaled, are anything but harmless when they cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other cancers.
Now, however, the risks of using asbestos are well-known and the material has been banned all around the world. But prior to this discovery, many of those in and around military bases continued to work in asbestos-filled areas unknowingly as the asbestos industry ignored warnings of its toxicity. Even those who didn’t ever board the Naval ships were exposed. Death rates in combat were around 18 in 1000 service members, while a startlingly similar death rate – 14 in 1000 – hit shipyard workers.
The initial symptoms of mesothelioma – including shortness of breath, chest pain, and fatigue – can take up to 50 years to appear. This long latency period means that even today, Navy veterans who served as early as the 1960s or 70s are only now being diagnosed with the disease.
Little Regard for the Care They Need
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has made strides to compensate those who served in the Navy who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma. But are they doing enough?
The federal system has faced a lot of criticism for its support – or lack thereof – of former servicemen, with many mesothelioma patients facing difficulties in filing benefit claims. In some cases, the wait times for appointments have even been so long that patients have died waiting for care. As such, many veterans have turned instead to filing lawsuits to get the support they need.
Yet, these people who so bravely served our country don’t deserve to feel abandoned by any support network. The VA needs to do more to improve their operations but, until they do, celebrations like the Navy’s birthday help to raise awareness of the difficulties veterans face and create a movement toward more sufficient care for our servicemen and women.
Making Today a Day to Remember
The U.S. Navy’s birthday, celebrated on October 13 each year, is dedicated to commemorating the men and women who make up the most powerful navy in the world. Of course, considering the trials they have faced in battle and in illness, our veterans’ success continues to be a great source of inspiration and pride for many Americans.
Since the inception of its official birthday celebrations in 1972, every Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) has encouraged active forces, reserves, retirees, friends, and family to “enhance a greater appreciation of our Navy heritage, and to provide a positive influence toward pride and professionalism in the naval service.”
This year, the Navy turns 241.
Though you or loved ones might be joining in the festivities today, remember: The fight isn’t over yet for some veterans, and for others, it has only just begun. Support for veterans affected by mesothelioma does exist and, as a nation, it’s our responsibility to thank their honorable services by providing as much help as possible.