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Veterans in all branches of the military were exposed to asbestos, placing them at risk for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
Veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces are a unique group — one that played an important role in building America into the great nation it is today. These brave men and women made incredible sacrifices to protect our country, and we owe them respect and gratitude.
While many veterans gave their lives to defend our country, others came home only to die decades later from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos, a toxic material used extensively in all branches of the military.
The military certainly had the safety of service members in mind when it first embraced asbestos as a fireproofing material, but use of the toxic mineral continued well after medical evidence first proved the harmful effects of breathing it and the tragic deaths that followed. Today, veterans account for nearly a third of all mesothelioma cases in the U.S.
Veterans who developed mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions after exposure to asbestos in the military qualify for special financial benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including disability compensation, special monthly compensation and service-connected death benefits for surviving family members.
An approved mesothelioma VA claim provides much-needed help for veterans such as access to treatment at any facility in the VA network. Free travel is available for veterans who want to visit the Boston VA Healthcare System and the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, two leading facilities offering the best mesothelioma treatments.
Asbestos was once highly regarded for its heat resistance and fire-proofing capabilities, making it a valuable tool for the U.S. Armed Forces. Nearly all branches of the military used the material from the 1900s to the mid-1970s, putting veterans who specialized in many military occupations at risk for mesothelioma.
All modes of military transportation, such as Navy ships, tanks, automobiles and aircraft, contained products contaminated with asbestos. It was used in electric wiring insulation, brake pads and clutch pads found in jeeps, tanks and aircraft. Buildings on military bases, including barracks, were filled with asbestos cement pipes and a variety of other asbestos-containing building materials.
Today, veterans who served from 1940 to 1980 are at high risk of developing health problems from asbestos. Those who served more recently also are in danger because it took decades for the military to remove or replace the asbestos products. Veterans who were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been exposed to asbestos when older buildings that contained the material were damaged.
It wasn't until the mid-1970s, after considerable publicity over the toxicity and long-term health problems of asbestos, that the military curtailed its use. Many of the veterans who are diagnosed today were first exposed to asbestos during the Korean or Vietnam wars and soon thereafter.
The VA website lists a variety of military job duties that may have exposed veterans to asbestos. The most dangerous occupations include mining, shipyard work and construction.
The military’s reliance on asbestos not only put service members at risk, but it also endangered their family members through secondary asbestos exposure. During the peak years of asbestos use, many veterans brought home asbestos fibers on their work clothes and unintentionally exposed their spouses or children to the toxic mineral.
These secondary exposures were far less severe than the heavy firsthand exposures that frequently occurred at Navy shipyards, yet they still had the potential to cause mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.
One common scenario for secondhand exposure: A serviceman’s wife inhales asbestos while washing or handling her husband’s asbestos-laden clothes. Children have also suffered secondhand asbestos exposures by playing with their fathers or hugging them when they return home from work.
Secondary exposure is rarely a problem when service members are deployed overseas, but it can be a serious risk for families who live on military bases or in military family housing. If a veteran ever returns home covered in asbestos dust, there is a chance a family member may develop a related illness later in life.
The U.S. government never warned its service members exposure to asbestos in the military would lead to respiratory illnesses and deadly cancers. While the VA health care system struggles with a massive backlog of asbestos claims, it fails to tell many veterans about VA facilities in Boston and Los Angeles — the best that specialize in mesothelioma treatment.
U.S. Navy veterans were exposed to higher levels of asbestos than servicemen in other branches of the military because the Navy packed its vessels with asbestos materials from bow to stern. As a result, Navy veterans are diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses at higher rates that other servicemen.
The Navy began adding asbestos fireproofing materials to its ships in 1938. The following year, the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy issued a warning about the dangers of asbestos exposure in the New York Navy Yard and the risk for asbestosis.
However, the Navy ignored the warning and increased production of asbestos-laden ships in preparation for World War II. Navy personnel faced exposure risks from the late 1930s to the early 1990s.
For some veterans who developed mesothelioma, their service was only one component of their asbestos exposure. Many service members were trained in Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force trade jobs. When they stopped saluting and rejoined civilian life, they often sought jobs related to skills they developed during service.
They became plumbers, electricians, construction specialists, mechanics and industrial workers, just to name a handful of occupations veterans may have chosen after their service. Many later learned these jobs added to their exposure history, increasing the odds of developing a related condition years down the line. Mesothelioma typically develops 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos.
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There are an estimated 22 million veterans in the U.S. today, and a majority of them were exposed to asbestos at some point during their military service. A portion of those eventually will be diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease.
Mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose, a problem that often delays the start of treatment and limits treatment options. Many of the symptoms mirror those of less serious illnesses. Doctors may mistake early warning signs, such as a persistent cough, night sweats and fever, for pneumonia or the flu — giving the cancer more time to spread.
If you are a veteran with known asbestos exposure, it is urgent to heed any early warning signs and request a chest X-ray or other early screening tests. The Mesothelioma Center can help connect you with a doctor and answer any questions you may have.
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Army Capt. Aaron Munz served nine years in combat and strategic training before leaving active duty in 2006.
Every veteran discharged “under conditions other than dishonorable” has a right to VA benefits, including health care, monthly compensation and survivor benefits for their loved ones.
The Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center specializes in getting veterans' VA claims approved for benefits. U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz, director of the Veterans Department, is well versed in helping people navigate the complicated VA claims process. He has the knowledge and resources to guide you each step along the way.
The VA recognizes mesothelioma as a service-connected medical condition. We can help you gather evidence to prove your disease is asbestos-related and show the majority of your exposures to asbestos occurred during your military service. We also can help you explore other potential avenues of compensation.
Disability Compensation is a monthly benefit based on a veteran's level of disability. The VA rates the level of disability from zero to 100 percent and provides more compensation for higher disability ratings.
Cancers such as mesothelioma are considered 100 percent disabling. This would qualify a veteran for the maximum monthly benefit, which starts at $2,800. Benefits may increase based on the veteran's number of dependents.
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation is a monthly benefit paid to the surviving spouse of a veteran who died from a service-related disability. The benefit is $1,195. If the veteran already was receiving Disability Compensation for mesothelioma or asbestos-related lung cancer when he died, the spouse needs to file a DIC claim.
If the veteran was not receiving service-related compensation, the spouse still may be eligible for DIC, provided additional information regarding asbestos exposure can be produced.
Eligibility for VA health care is based on a series of priorities, including service-related disabilities and income levels. There also are special circumstances.
For veterans with an asbestos-related illness, enrollment would be tied to a determination the illness was service related or to income level. The VA uses two different income limits: A National Income Threshold and a Geographical-Adjusted Income Threshold. Qualifying under the income level category may require copays for health services.
Special Monthly Compensation is a benefit available to veterans who are bedridden, housebound or disabled enough to need the aid and attendance of another person. This benefit is also available to spouses and parents of veterans.
The amount of monthly SMC awarded depends on how much aid and attendance is necessary, but it often ranges from $250 to $650 a month.
After years of providing help for veterans with mesothelioma, we’ve found some veterans and their loved ones have misconceptions about VA benefits that prevent them from filing a claim — even when they qualify.
Unfortunately, veterans who mistakenly think they are ineligible miss out on quality health care and vital financial assistance.
One common myth is veterans can’t file a VA claim because they developed an asbestos-related condition after their military discharge. Diseases related to asbestos exposure can take decades to develop, so if veterans can prove their asbestos exposure was service connected, they qualify for VA benefits.
Another misconception is only veterans of the five main branches of military are eligible for benefits. VA benefits are extended to commissioned officers of the U.S. Public Health Service, the U.S. Environmental Services Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its precursor, the Coast and Geodetic Survey.
Compensation for veterans and finding quality medical care are integral parts of our Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center. Read some of the inspiring stories about veterans we’ve spoken with and assisted over the years.
"The Mesothelioma Center helped us getting through the red tape with the VA, getting the necessary forms for us. We’d probably still be battling without their help — there’s no doubt about that."
"When I was leaving the Boston VA, I told them they should go to these other places around the country and show them how it's supposed to be done. You could tell they really were on your side."
"We were told he had maybe 15 more months to live, that he could get chemotherapy and hope for the best. Nobody knew what to do. We had no other option until we found the Mesothelioma Center."
"I have no anger, no bad feelings toward the Navy. There is no remorse there. I'm a Navy veteran, and I'm proud of that. The price of freedom is never cheap. I'm proud of my service to my country."
"I would tell anyone diagnosed, or their family, to look beyond where they normally would for treatment. There are experts out there who can treat this disease, but you have to find them."
"We never knew how bad the asbestos was for you. It was such a great insulator, a great product for the Navy to use. My time in the Navy was a good time. It taught me a lot."
Every ship built by the Navy before the mid-1970s was fitted with asbestos-containing materials. Records show Navy ships housed more than 300 asbestos-containing products, and shipyards were filled with these materials.
Navy personnel who worked below deck prior to the early 1990s were commonly exposed to asbestos. Seamen frequently removed damaged asbestos lagging from engine rooms and re-wrapped the pipes with asbestos paste — usually with no respiratory protection or other safety equipment required for such a dangerous task.
Ventilation below deck was often poor, so asbestos released from damaged materials or maintenance work that disturbed them would linger where personnel lived and worked. Even veterans who never worked with asbestos directly may have been exposed from asbestos work happening nearby.
Virtually no portion of a naval ship was asbestos-free between the '30s and mid-'70s, putting Navy veterans and shipyard workers at the highest risk for developing asbestos-related diseases. Asbestos-containing materials were used extensively in engine and boiler rooms and other areas below deck for fire safety purposes. The toxic mineral was used in navigation rooms, sleeping quarters and mess halls.
Many veterans with mesothelioma disability status don’t realize they can seek treatment anywhere in the VA system, giving them access to some of the best specialists in the country. In most cases, the VA can assist with travel arrangements and cover the cost of airfare and housing.
Surgeons such as Dr. Abraham Lebenthal at the Boston VA Healthcare System and Dr. Robert Cameron at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System are lauded for their work as mesothelioma specialists, offering their services to veterans everywhere.
Lebenthal is a proponent of extrapleural pneumonectomy surgery, which removes the entire affected lung and other nearby structures in the chest. Cameron prefers a less aggressive approach, using a lung-sparing procedure called pleurectomy/decortication.
In 2015, Lebenthal performed the first heated chemotherapy procedure in the VA health care system on a veteran with pleural mesothelioma. The innovative technique, similar to the Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy procedure for peritoneal mesothelioma, combines aggressive surgery with high doses of chemotherapy. Lebenthal heats the chemotherapy solution to improve its effectiveness, a technique that has given some patients a survival advantage of five years or more.
Veterans also can participate in clinical trials, where the latest experimental treatments are being tested and refined. There is no cure for mesothelioma, but researchers are making significant advancements in treatment through clinical trials.
The National Cancer Institute has an ongoing clinical trial involving immunotherapy drug SS1P, which has produced impressive results in reducing tumor size with late-stage mesothelioma patients. There are dozens of mesothelioma trials at various sites throughout the country.
The VA health care system occasionally participates in mesothelioma clinical trials. It also hosts trials for lung cancer and sometimes ovarian cancer, which also can be caused by asbestos exposure. Currently, the Baltimore VA Medical Center is participating in a mesothelioma clinical trial comparing the effectiveness of ongoing pemetrexed chemotherapy versus observation alone in patients whose disease didn’t progress after first-line chemotherapy.