Like so many other veterans, Jim A. doesn’t blame the United States Military for the asbestos exposure that led to the mesothelioma cancer that may change his life dramatically.
He was serving his country unselfishly, which is why we celebrate Veterans Day and honor these unheralded heroes.
Jim, 67, is a Navy veteran who served in the mid-’60s aboard the USS Renville, an attack transport ship that brought the Marines, ammunitions and supplies to fight the Vietnam War. He spent much of his time as a boiler technician, where he worked for hours every day around steam-powered machinery and the asbestos that covered it, unaware of the dangers all around him.
As he discovered almost 50 years later, the North Vietnamese weren’t the only enemy he was facing.
“Today, you just mention asbestos, and people starting showing up in space suits,” he said from his home near Madisonville, Tenn. “Back then, nobody knew. We never even gave it a thought. We didn’t have masks. We worked in dungarees, tearing that asbestos insulation apart, and thought nothing of it.” His last name is being withheld over privacy concerns.
Jim, like many of the brave men and women who served alongside him, celebrated Veterans Day at home rather quietly Sunday. Then did what he always does Monday — returned to work as a diesel mechanic at the local Ford Dealership.
He was just diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in September, but after almost two weeks in the hospital and two rounds of chemotherapy, he is back on the job, and feeling content with his life, and still good about his years in the service.
“Back then, I enjoyed my time in the Navy. There were some good times, and some bad times, but I actually liked it,” he said. “I served with some great guys, guys I’ll always remember.”
Unfortunately for Jim, and so many others who served bravely, mesothelioma has hit hard on the veteran population. Although it’s a rare cancer, only 3,000 Americans are diagnosed every year, more than a third of the new cases annually are veterans and many of those from the Navy, where asbestos was everywhere. Veterans were put in harm’s way, and many had no idea.
“I’ve lost a little strength, but I’m almost back to normal now. For a guy my age, I’m still pretty fit. Before I was diagnosed, I never got sick, never broke a bone, never was even in a hospital unless it was visiting someone else,” he said.
“I can still do stuff at work that the guys who are 50 years old can’t do anymore. So I’m feeling pretty good about myself right now.”
Jim has lost touch with most of his Navy comrades. All the phone numbers, addresses and paperwork he once had were lost in a fire that destroyed his home years ago.
He and his wife have been married for more than 40 years. He has a brother and sister in Florida, where he lived earlier, and a daughter in Atlanta.
As unlucky as a diagnosis of mesothelioma can be, he is fortunate it came before the cancer had spread very far. It was discovered after a relatively routine physical exam.
A long-time smoker, he was sent to a specialist after some abnormalities appeared in a chest X-ray and EKG, which led to a CT Scan, more tests and the discovery of fluid around his right lung. Doctors at the Cancer Center in Knoxville confirmed the mesothelioma.
“You could say I was shocked, but not that big of a shock because I had always wondered after hearing so much about how dangerous asbestos turned out to be,” he said. “I’m told, though, it was caught early, maybe early enough that the chemotherapy will take care of it. I don’t think you really ever know for sure.”
Unfortunately, too many other veterans are not so lucky. There is no cure for mesothelioma, and too often the diagnosis comes after the cancer has metastasized. A typical diagnosis comes with a life expectancy of eight to 18 months.
Jim also was assisted quickly by The Mesothelioma Center, which helped him simplify and streamline the process of filing a VA Disability Compensation claim, which can be a very frustrating experience for many veterans.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes mesothelioma as a service-connected medical condition, but it requires detailed paperwork before an application can be completed and approved. The Mesothelioma Center has extensive experience and certification to assist all veterans in the process.
“The good thing about all this is that it made me quit smoking,” Jim said. “I’d been meaning to do it for some time now, and this became the time. I quit cold turkey, and haven’t had one since.”