Asbestos: Invisible Enemy of Veterans


Health Editor’s Note: VT has reported in earlier articles about asbestos and how veterans are at an increased risk of being exposed. The following is an article written by a veteran, Aaron Munz, who is a former U.S. Army Captain and is the director of the Veterans Department for Mesothelioma Center which can be found at Aaron served for 9 years in the Army and that included a 14-month deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Aaron’s work with the Mesothelioma Center has him working directly with veterans who have contracted asbestos related illnesses from the time they spent in the service……Carol

Deadly Toll of Asbestos on U.S. Veterans

By Aaron Munz

I recently spoke with a U.S. Navy veteran who told me he would find refuge in asbestos storage lockers aboard ships and take naps on asbestos-woven blankets.

It was the coolest, most comfortable place down in the engineering compartment of the ship. A haven from the heat of the boiler rooms, and a chance to escape from his duties for a few minutes.

At the time, he didn’t know that closet was one of the most dangerous places on the ship.
That veteran — like hundreds of others — was recently diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

Veterans represent a disproportionate amount of mesothelioma cases because of the U.S.
military’s extensive use of the toxic mineral for much of the 20th century.
The Navy used more asbestos-containing products than any branch of the military.

Asbestos was used to fireproof engine rooms and boiler rooms, insulate gaskets and pipes and reinforce weapons and ammunition storage rooms.

Mechanics in all branches of the armed forces worked extensively with the toxic mineral.
Once touted for its durability and heat-resistant properties, asbestos is now the known cause for debilitating respiratory diseases and cancers, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. Symptoms and accompanying diagnoses for these conditions typically come decades after a person is first exposed to asbestos.

Millions of veterans were exposed to asbestos during WWII, the Vietnam War and well into the 1980s. I have personally spoken to thousands of men and women who proudly served our country only to face asbestos-related health conditions decades after their service ends. The Invisible Enemy of Veterans

According to U.S. Census Bureau records, veterans account for 8 percent of the total U.S.
population. But they comprise more than 30 percent of mesothelioma cases, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Far too many U.S. veterans survived war only to come home and die of an asbestos-related
disease. Asbestos is a silent killer among our nation’s veterans.

As the director of the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center at, I have seen firsthand the affect it has on our heroes.

I hear stories all the time from Navy veterans who stripped asbestos lagging from the steam pipes and scraped asbestos insulation from the inside of the boilers of ships. They tell me it looked like it was snowing in the compartment they worked in.

Most share the same sentiment: They were just doing their job and didn’t think the materials they handled would cause health problems later in life.

I certainly didn’t when I served. As an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, I now fear service-connected exposures to asbestos and other dangers may lead to health issues down the road.

When I left the Army in 2006, they were still using asbestos mittens to remove hot shell casings from tank and to replace hot machine gun barrels. It’s just one example of how asbestos is still used in certain applications on and around military equipment.

Soldiers serving oversees in Iraq and Afghanistan are at risk of asbestos exposure from buildings damaged during military operations. Asbestos is far less regulated in the Middle East.

This means future and recent veterans are at risk of developing mesothelioma and other
asbestos-related diseases long after their service ends. Not Always the Usual Suspects
Every day, I speak to veterans from all branches of the military who have been diagnosed with asbestos-related conditions.

Navy veterans are the most common, but it’s not always boiler technicians and pipefitters.
I recently spoke with a veteran who spent four years as a dentist in the Army. He was exposed to asbestos through dental equipment used in the 1960s and 1970s.

This is just one example of a very unusual type of exposure where the veteran didn’t even realize he was exposed until he started having breathing difficulties decades later.

I’ve spoken with several veterans who served during the Cold War and were stationed in old WWII barracks in Germany. These men never saw combat but were exposed to asbestos during renovations and maintenance at the base.

Doctors Don’t Know to Look for Asbestos Conditions

If you served in the military — especially before the 1980s — you likely were exposed to
asbestos in some capacity. Unfortunately, many veterans don’t know if these exposures will lead to health conditions until symptoms arise 20 to 50 years after service. And even then, too many put off getting checked for asbestos-related diseases.

Veterans need to let their primary care doctor know about their history of asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma and other related diseases are rare, and most doctors and even oncologists have never seen or diagnosed it.

Testing for asbestos lung disease requires a pulmonary function test and a scan of the lungs. I talk to so many veterans who were misdiagnosed or only diagnosed with COPD because it is more common and their doctor only gave them a breathing test.

I tell veterans to be proactive, tell their doctor they have a history of asbestos exposure and make sure they receive an X-ray and ideally a CT scan, so doctors can look for signs of damage caused by asbestos.

The unfortunate reality is many veterans now face serious health conditions related to their
service. Help is available through the VA health care system, benefits claims and other resources for veterans.

If you are a veteran who was exposed to asbestos during service, don’t be afraid to speak up. If you know a veteran who worked in a high-risk military occupation, such as pipefitting or vehicle maintenance, who is now experiencing breathing problems, urge them to get tested for asbestos-related conditions.

Diagnosing these conditions early is essential to a better prognosis and longer survival.

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