Renee Simpson always knew she would follow in her father’s footsteps, and join the U.S. Army one day – serving her country proudly and unselfishly, like others in her family did.
But she worries now about suffering the same cruel fate.
Simpson returned home safely from her Army deployment in Bosnia almost 15 years ago. She married and happily began raising her own family in Camp Douglas, Wisc. She also watched her father, Dennis Lockington, die painfully in May from malignant pleural mesothelioma, the aggressive cancer that strikes a disproportionate percentage of military veterans.
The cancer stemmed from exposure to asbestos that likely began during his Army service.
“Sure, I’m a little worried about that now. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about it,” she told Asbestos.com. “I could get it at a much younger age than he did. Watching him suffer, just suffocate from that senseless disease, it’s not something you forget. You’ll always remember.”
Simpson will especially remember on Veterans Day, a time to commemorate those who served. As State Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of Wisconsin, she continues fighting for those like her father.
VFW Standing up to Flawed Legislation
Simpson spends considerable time in the Wisconsin state legislature lobbying against Senate Bill 13 and Assembly Bill 19, which are designed to restrict the legal rights of those suffering from an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma.
Although opposed by veterans groups, the bills have advanced through committee and soon could be voted upon by the full state legislature. If passed, the bills would help shield corporations from asbestos liability, delaying and sometimes denying justice for those who were harmed.
There are similar bills being pushed in other states, and some of them have passed.
Meanwhile, U.S. House Resolution 982, titled the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act, will be debated this week in Congress with similar intent.
The bills in Wisconsin hit close to home for Simpson. Lockington died in May, just nine months after being diagnosed, and the day before he was scheduled to give a legal deposition regarding his asbestos exposure. With too many delays already in the legal process, her father never received the chance to tell his story.
“The way this [Wisconsin] bill is written, it’s not a transparency issue. That’s not a problem in our state. It’s about protecting some of these companies. It safeguards them more than they safeguarded the victims they hurt,” Simpson said. “It’s awful. I just think our veterans – and anyone with this disease caused by asbestos – should be taken care of.”
Father’s Asbestos Exposure Started in Army
Lockington’s Army service was in the 1960s, near the peak of the military’s use of this deadly product. He slept in barracks, and ate in mess halls, insulated with asbestos. He was transported overseas on Navy ships that were covered in asbestos. He later worked in three different foundries with asbestos products all around.
“I don’t know if the goal [of the legislation] is to cheapen the sacrifices made by the vets because it would hit all citizens. But these are guys who went to work every day, became productive members of society, and got this terrible disease from products that the companies knew were harmful,” Simpson said. “And now we’re more concerned with the rights of the companies, than the rights of the victims? That’s tough to understand.”
Simpson is one of three siblings who joined the Army. They watched their father transform from a vibrant, robust man to a shell of himself in less than nine months after being diagnosed.
He left behind children like him who also believed in patriotism, and standing up for what they believed. It’s why Simpson has continued the fight for victims of asbestos exposure in the military.
VFW Keeping Watch
She was active in the VFW well before her father was diagnosed. It kept her close to her military roots. She never expected to be thrust into this role as a legislative activist, but she has embraced it with all the other duties.
Simpson will be speaking at two Wisconsin elementary schools on Veterans Day. Over the weekend, she participated in a Vietnam War 50th anniversary ceremony at the state capital, a Veterans Day parade in Milwaukee, and a sendoff for an Army Unit being deployed to Afghanistan.
“Like a lot of people, I used to think the VFW was just a bunch of old guys sitting around telling war stories and smoking,” Simpson said. “But I came to realize it does so much more to help veterans and veterans’ causes. I just want to continue doing my part.”
Veterans comprise approximately 8 percent of America’s population today, but an estimated 30 percent of all mesothelioma cases – evidence of the military’s former reliance on asbestos products.
Although the military dramatically reduced its use of asbestos in the ’80s, so much of it remained through the 1990s when Simpson served in the Army. She also remembers seeing the asbestos dust that covered her father’s work clothes when he came home from the foundries. Second-hand exposure is attributed to many of the 3,000 cases of mesothelioma that are diagnosed annually in America.
“You never know which one of us in the family could be next,” she said.