OCTOBER 19, 2021 – The 19 million military Veterans within America in 2021 – data collated by the United States (U.S.) Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) – have served in the U.S. armed forces in multiple circumstances.
The Veterans put their lives on the line for their country and met health challenges of breadth and intricacy that few other Americans consistently encountered. These men and women directly faced risks of injury or death in action and experienced long exposures to unhealthy environments, frequently for months or years at a turn.
Military exposures can range from Agent Orange and contaminated water to burn pit smoke and asbestos. Harmful substances discharged into the air or water can have a ravaging effect on a service member’s long-term health.
Using toxic solvents or cleaning chemicals for general upkeep on bases in the United States may have led to toxic exposure for the Veterans who served there. Other military base toxic exposures commonly relate to incidents that took place abroad.
Veterans generally carry an enhanced risk of illness due to such toxic exposures from their common work situations, living conditions, or diverse risky circumstances. These illnesses may present manifestations immediately or generate long-term effects that pass undiscovered for many years until they turn into serious health worries.
One striking illustration of substantial exposure to toxic materials is the case of asbestos. For many years, the military was largely dependent on asbestos, an adaptable, naturally occurring fibrous mineral that could sustain and help fireproof practically everything. Asbestos was regarded as an excellent material for many buildings, such as service bases and barracks. The military again used asbestos extensively when building battleships, airplanes, and motor vehicles.
This intensive use means that service members suffered asbestos exposure during their term of duty. Those engaged in construction or shipbuilding were especially at risk.
What kinds of issues do Veterans experience after their return from active military service?
Some of the most critical issues confronted by Veterans are health-related. Many Veterans live with multiple health conditions.
A significant number of Veterans who served from 1940 to 1980, when asbestos use was at its peak, were and still are most at risk to develop asbestos-related conditions, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, and laryngeal cancer. When an individual inhales microscopic asbestos fibers, they can become lodged in their lungs. Over an extended period, asbestos can generate sufficient genetic and cellular destruction to induce lung cells to become cancerous.
Asbestos-linked lung cancer generally takes 15 to 35 years from original exposure to an outbreak of manifestations. Because of this slow latency period, most situations investigated today were produced by asbestos exposure decades ago. When people gather background on their military career, they can work out that the time and location of their service means the disease is, in fact, most likely service-connected.
However, Veterans who served later may have also suffered asbestos exposure, as the mineral may still have been present in constructions. The military personnel who served in the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq may have been exposed to asbestos in old buildings containing the material or on navy ships built with asbestos products. Many Veterans being cared for now for asbestos-related conditions may have suffered exposure to the mineral during the Vietnam or Korean Wars.
Asbestos exposure also placed the Veterans’ households at risk when the asbestos dust clinked to their clothes and contaminated their homes. Therefore, servicemen’s partners and families were at risk of inhaling the asbestos fibers, mainly if they cleaned the uniforms.
Although the military and the construction and manufacturing industry have significantly cut down the use of asbestos in later decades, its harmful effects will still affect military Veterans for several generations. The damage they sustained will not go away, and the public should not overlook the circumstances in which they incurred injuries.
There is substantial documented evidence that asbestos companies did considerable interference to suppress the truth about the risks of asbestos from the public domain.
Are Veterans receiving the support they need?
In many respects, the Veterans Health Administration (V.H.A.), which offers health care to a considerable number of Veterans, provides care that is as valuable as or better than that given by private or non-V.H.A. public systems.
However, the accessibility and quality of health care services vary across the system. Because of its scope and geographic diffusion, the V.H.A. struggles to be great at all things in all places. The V.H.A. still relies on an antiquated health records system, so it has difficulty maintaining quality and patient satisfaction. In 2018, the V.H.A. started replacing the outdated system with commercial software, but doing so will presumably take years.
Also, the V.H.A. is still grappling with a swiftly deteriorating infrastructure, and many of its facilities are over 60 years old. Veterans have reported other barriers to accessing V.H.A. health care services and benefits, including difficulty accessing medical facilities due to their inconvenient location or lack of transportation.
Likewise, many Veterans don’t know how to apply for health care and disability benefits, are uncertain if they are eligible, or are unaware of the available solutions. The Department’s complex administration is notably troublesome to handle, so many eligible Veterans struggle to get the appropriate care in case of toxic exposure.
How can we make sure Veterans get good health care?
To handle a large-spreading array of medical issues, Veterans need:
- a prompt and correct diagnosis;
- a healthcare system equipped to handle their rare and complex cancers;
- facilities experienced in asbestos-related diseases;
- better communication and coordination among the public and private programs that serve Veterans and their families;
- information on V.A.’s programs;
- timely processing of their complex asbestos-related claims.
The focus of these services needs to be on the Veterans’ specific problems. In some cases, that means increasing the number of health care providers offering services. In other instances, focusing specifically on Veterans’ needs means providing more effective treatments, which may require new research to accomplish.
Veterans cannot take legal action immediately against the military or the U.S. for their asbestos conditions. Nevertheless, they can access—generally, without a suit—asbestos trust funds set up by companies that provided the supplies and products to the forces.
While the V.A. has upgraded its global efforts recently, Veterans with asbestos-related issues still call for further care. Just as the military created the problem, it requires working harder to take care of the Veterans who served efficiently, assuring no one is left behind.
Veterans’ intensity and range of challenges vary and derive from a complex interaction of many causes. Past wars have proved that their health-related needs peak several decades after their time of service. We all need to be ready to deliver the services Veterans and their families will require in the years ahead.
About the Author
Miguel Leyva is a case manager at Atraxia Law. In this position, he provides support to Veterans injured by exposure to asbestos. Miguel helps Veterans diagnosed with lung cancer and other severe conditions collect and assemble essential information about their injuries.