Although many of us know June 14th as Flag Day, it’s actually a birthday celebration. On that date in 1775, the Continental Congress created the Continental Army to fight the American Revolutionary War. 9 years later, that group became the United States Army, now the largest branch of the U.S. military.
Over 40 million people have served in the U.S. Army, including nearly half a million active personnel today. Honoring the sacrifices of past and current Army personnel on Flag Day is a fine tradition. However, the celebration should also include acknowledgement that for many Army veterans, another war has continued long after their service.
As a result of their time in the military, numerous soldiers have faced an enemy they never expected: mesothelioma.
According to the National Cancer Institute, malignant mesothelioma is a disease in which cancer cells can appear in the thin layer of tissue covering the lungs or the tissue lining the abdomen. The condition can also affect the heart or the abdomen.
Because mesothelioma is caused by asbestos exposure, military personnel — particularly those who served before 1980 — are at higher risk for exposure. Those in the U.S. Navy seemed to face especially significant risks, since ships were filled with asbestos-laden materials, but numerous U.S. Army soldiers also worked in dangerous conditions.
Before asbestos hazards were uncovered, the material was used extensively in U.S. Army bases, including barracks and other buildings. Even when asbestos use was discontinued in new construction, soldiers continued to be exposed because this deadly material was present in flooring, ceiling tiles, pipes, and insulation.
U.S. Army personnel who worked on military vehicles often had even greater risk, since asbestos was typically used in the manufacture of clutches, brakes, and other parts.
Since the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases generally do not appear until 20 to 50 years after exposure, some U.S. Army veterans may suffer from the disease without realizing the connection to their time in the service. Equally challenging, many recently discharged veterans may not see symptoms — which include shortness of breath, chest pain, and chronic coughing — for another few decades.
Although the U.S. military no longer uses asbestos, buildings in recent war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan often have asbestos in their construction. When bombs damage those buildings, asbestos fibers can be released into the air, putting Army personnel at risk of exposure. That makes mesothelioma an enemy of multiple generations of military veterans, and one that’s been far too challenging to defeat.
This Flag Day, let’s honor the brave men and women who have served in the U.S. Army throughout its long, storied history. But let’s also look to the future, when we hope Army personnel will no longer have to fight a personal war against mesothelioma.