Asbestos was widely used in the military in the 1930s through the 1970s because of its durable, fire-resistant properties. Military veterans, therefore, are particularly vulnerable to the development of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Almost one-third of all mesothelioma diagnoses involve military veterans. Both veterans who served during this time and those who served afterward are at risk for asbestos diseases because of the retention of asbestos in equipment and vehicles.
Veterans who are diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease have the option of seeking treatment or benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Some medical centers in the United States with mesothelioma specialists are affiliated with the VA, making it easier for veterans to seek treatment through their military coverage. For instance, VA medical centers in the following locations offer mesothelioma treatment programs:
- Los Angeles, CA
- Miami, FL
- Decatur, GA
- West Roxbury, MA
- Albany, NY
- Houston, TX
In addition to treatment opportunities, the VA offers some tax-free benefits to veterans who were exposed to asbestos during their military service and subsequently developed mesothelioma or asbestos-related diseases. Veterans themselves can receive Disability Compensation upon diagnoses. If a veteran dies from asbestos-related illness, his or her family members can also receive compensation through the VA’s Dependency and Indemnity Compensation process.
To be eligible for monetary benefits, veterans or their families must be able to show the following:
- Proof of discharge in any way except dishonorable;
- Proof of exposure to asbestos during the time of service (service records showing date and location of service); and
- Proof of medical diagnoses of an illness related to asbestos exposure (medical records from a physician).
Upon receipt of a claim submission, the VA will review the documentation and make a decision about eligibility for benefits along with the amount of money a veteran is eligible to receive. The process does take some time — typically six to eight months. If an application is denied, the veteran or his or her family has the right to appeal that decision.
It is essential to understand that even if a veteran did not serve during the time when asbestos was still being placed in military buildings, vehicles, and equipment, he or she could still develop mesothelioma. Throughout the process of mitigating asbestos use, military members were still exposed to the fibers. And some overseas builders still use asbestos products.
Further, while some people believe they must have developed symptoms of mesothelioma or an asbestos-related disease while they were still in the military, this is not true. Symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses can take many years to develop, sometimes as long as 50 years from exposure. For this reason, the majority of VA benefits claimants will have been discharged long before they notice symptoms.
Veterans who worked in the Navy and Coast Guard are at the highest risk of developing asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma. Asbestos products were widely used on ships from 1930 to 1970, with the most common uses being insulation, engine room materials, and boiler room materials. The closed-in spaces inside ships and limited ventilation made it more likely that Navy and Coast Guard members would inhale or ingest dangerous levels of asbestos fibers anytime the material was disturbed. Veterans who worked below deck, in submarines, and in shipyards were most at risk of high asbestos exposure.
Some of the most dangerous jobs in these two military branches in terms of asbestos exposure were:
- Machinery and ship repairmen
- Boiler room workers
Those repairing ships or building ships would frequently chip and grind away at asbestos materials, releasing large amounts of fibers into the air. These workers usually did not have protective gear, which means they were highly susceptible to breathing in or swallowing the dangerous fibers.
Members of all branches of the military were and are at risk for developing mesothelioma or asbestos-related illnesses because of their exposure levels. Asbestos seemed to be the ideal material for many military uses. In the Army, service members encountered asbestos by way of:
- Housing and barracks
- Mess halls or dining/kitchen facilities
- Ammunition storage facilities
- Vehicles and equipment
- Training facilities
Asbestos was particularly prevalent in caulking and flooring, cement foundations, building and pipe insulation, vehicle insulation, equipment gaskets, and brake lines inside of vehicles. Army workers who repaired equipment and vehicles were at a higher risk through directly encountering and disturbing asbestos fibers.
In addition to the above, Air Force members regularly encountered asbestos in their planes. Aircraft brakes, insulation, heating mechanisms, wiring, and valves commonly contained asbestos materials that could become disturbed with every use. As with the other branches of the military, mechanics, and workers who performed repairs or helped to build aircraft were at a higher risk of encountering dangerous levels of asbestos fibers.
Asbestos materials were used in the following on Air Force bases:
- Floor and ceiling tiles
- Vinyl flooring
- Pipe insulation
Airforce occupations at high risk of asbestos exposure included:
- Aircraft and vehicle mechanics
- Air Force firefighters
- Aircraft electricians
- Boiler workers
Marine veterans were at unique risk of asbestos exposure because of their overlap in a lot of areas with the Navy and the Air Force. They were exposed to asbestos in the same situations as Army service members but were also frequently aboard military ships and military aircraft.
Because of the specialized training they received in the military, numerous veterans sought jobs very similar to the positions they held during their service. These veterans maintained high exposure risks by participating in the same fields and encountering the same hazardous materials.
In addition to their own exposure, veterans also exposed their family members to asbestos when they came home from work with fibers in their hair and on their clothing. Second-hand exposure can result in the development of mesothelioma and asbestos-related disease.