Most people are aware that military service can be dangerous. Even during peacetime, it’s understood that active service members are at risk of getting shot, or suffering other combat injuries – especially if they are deployed to a volatile area. People are also aware of the mental and psychological toll that combat, and combat injuries, can take on our veterans. What most people don’t expect are injuries not from combat, but from constant and repeated exposure to chemical agents and environmental contaminants.
Mustard Gas, Agent Orange, and Asbestos
Mustard gas was one of the earliest chemical weapons used in 20th century warfare. While it was first developed by the French in 1914, mustard gas was widely used by the Germans during World War One. The gas was added to shells, grenades and bombs, and was also sprayed into the trenches in liquid form.
Mustard gas caused skin burns, and it also damaged the lining of the respiratory tract. Those who did not die immediately from the gas attacks often suffered lingering, and debilitating, long-term effects. It was not unusual for soldiers to return home with serious respiratory issues that grew worse, until they finally succumbed to their injuries years later. Although a majority of the soldiers affected European, approximately 73,000 American soldiers were also exposed to the gas. Because of its devastating effects the use of mustard gas, and other poison gases, in warfare was banned in 1925.
One thing about mustard gas is that it was considered a legitimate weapon, and the injuries sustained from exposure were considered combat injuries.
Agent Orange and Asbestos are a different story.
Although Agent Orange, originally developed by Monsanto, was used in combat operations, it was not designed to attack human targets. Agent Orange was an herbicide that the United States developed for use in South East Asia during the Vietnam War. It was designed to destroy the thick vegetation that was used for cover by the opposing forces, and to destroy the enemy food supply.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than 19 million gallons of Agent Orange and other herbicides were dropped over the jungles of South East Asia, including areas where allied forces were stationed.
Agent Orange contained extremely high amounts of a chemical called dioxin, a known carcinogen. Long-term exposure to dioxin is also linked to immune system impairment, Hodgkin’s disease, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, neurological disorders, and other illnesses.
Many soldiers did not have any symptoms while they were deployed, but developed diseases and disorders believed to be related to Agent Orange years after exposure.
Asbestos saw wide usage in the United States military, especially in the Navy. Because it is so durable, as well as heat and fire-resistant, it was used in the engine rooms of ships, and in materials used to build and repair the ships. It was also used in building materials on bases, and in the field.
Soldiers who worked in shipyards were at great risk of exposure to asbestos, and rates of exposure in the Navy were some of the highest of all branches of the military. However, because it was also widely used in construction, service members who did insulation and construction work as part of their active duty were also at greater risk for exposure.
Asbestos is a fibrous material that is fairly safe when it is intact, but when it is damaged it can release those tiny fibers into the air. If those tiny fibers are inhaled or ingested, they can get stuck in the tissues of the lungs, the digestive tract, and the membranes surrounding the organs.
Asbestos exposure is linked to several serious, and life-threatening, diseases including malignant melanoma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
Like Agent Orange, service members often do not show symptoms during the periods of exposure, but develop their illnesses years later.
Issues Surrounding Exposure
The biggest issue surrounding exposure to chemical agents and environmental pollutants is that it can often take years to discover the damage.
While the Department of Veterans Affairs does acknowledge that there are illnesses associated with exposure to Agent Orange and Asbestos, and has compensation programs in place, it’s not always easy for veterans to get the help they need.
Service members have to prove that the exposure happened during military service, and not through other means. They may also have to prove that they were in specific places, at specific points, during their military service. If they have been discharged from the service, it has to have been under other than dishonorable conditions, and they will need to submit to a physical examination by the military.
Service members filing on behalf of children born with birth defects, as a result of exposure to Agent Orange, also have other hoops to jump through, and there is no guarantee that the Veteran’s Administration will approve the claim.