Every year, November 11 marks Veterans Day, a day to pay tribute to the selfless men and women who served in the U.S. military. We should, of course, be thanking veterans every day for the astounding sacrifices they made for our country. But dedicating a day gives us the opportunity to step back and think about what those sacrifices really mean.
As we pause and reflect on the pledge veterans made to risk their lives, it’s important to remember that this pledge only applied to the battlefield and related physical or mental trauma. Unbeknownst to them, veterans also fought the lethal dangers of asbestos.
Thus, Veterans Day is not only an important time to commemorate the past. This is also a time to think harder about veterans and mesothelioma, a disease caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos. This is a battle veterans still face today, even as much as 50 years after their service.
What Does Veterans Day Mean to You?
Veterans Day has had enormous cultural and patriotic significance across the nation since its inception as “Armistice Day” in 1919. Whether they served at war or during peacetime, millions of veterans both living and dead made an honorable commitment to protect Americans and secure the freedom we enjoy today.
If you’re fortunate enough to know a veteran personally, thank them. A note, a gift, or showing your gratitude in person could mean a lot. You can also participate in Veterans Day if you don’t know a vet, by donating to a charitable organization, volunteering, writing a letter, attending a local parade, or joining the national ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
However, many veterans are in need of much more than kind thoughts. For those who suffer illnesses as a result of their service to our nation – especially rare, incurable cancers like mesothelioma – the most important form of support is to advocate for their health.
Veterans and Their Underestimated Adversary
Asbestos use was rampant throughout most of the 20th century. Prior to the 1970s, asbestos was considered by many Americans to be safe. It was noted for its strength, versatility, fire resistance, and affordability. This made the mineral perfect for military use, insulating and reinforcing ships, planes, vehicles, buildings, and machinery whose durability and resistance to hazards were essential. Thanks to the secrecy of asbestos-related companies, service members were unaware that asbestos was a deadly carcinogen itself.
When airborne, invisible asbestos fibers can enter the body, where the mineral embeds itself into the lining of major organs and creates tumors. All that’s needed to trigger cancer is a single fiber. Yet asbestos was often released into the air in masses when vessels and buildings were built or broken down, sealing the fate of thousands of military personnel and construction workers.
Symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases can take anywhere from 20 to 50 years to emerge. This means even veterans who served in the Vietnam War – especially in the Navy – are only now being diagnosed. Nearly every Navy vessel commissioned between 1930 and 1970 was built with asbestos, leading to the highest incidence rates of asbestos-related diseases among Navy vets than any other branch. In fact, 1 in every 3 mesothelioma diagnoses is linked to shipyard exposure.
Why Is This Issue So Urgent Today?
As fellow citizens, it is our responsibility to ensure veterans receive the healthcare they deserve for service-related medical conditions. Although veterans make up just 8 percent of the American population, they represent an overwhelming 30 percent of all mesothelioma deaths. This is poor repayment for overcoming the challenges they endured in service.
Worse, mesothelioma patients sometimes struggle to secure government health benefits. They must first prove their exposure to asbestos occurred during service, which is sometimes impossible, and must then deal with the notorious backlog and slow, dysfunctional processes of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) claims. Many veterans are refused the care they so desperately need, and more than 300,000 have died waiting for approval.
Enough is enough. As a result of putting their lives on the line, a disproportionate number of veterans suffer from asbestos-caused diseases they should never have developed and face unacceptable barriers to treatment. We must do all it takes to demand better care and to hold manufacturers of asbestos-containing products accountable for knowingly endangering veterans’ lives. If you believe you or a loved one may have been exposed to asbestos, or are already diagnosed with mesothelioma, there may be action you can take. After all they’ve been through, veterans deserve better.