A Salute to Navy Veterans With Asbestos Cancer

Today the peloton travels through Sausalito, across the Golden Gate Bridge and through the streets of San Francisco. To their left is the San Rafael Bay and San Francisco Bay.  From the early 1900's, the bays were home to several major Navy shipyards, including the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, Kaiser Shipyard, Mare Island Shipyard and Todd Shipyards.  In these historic shipyards, millions of Navy sailors and civilian workers during the 1930's to 1980's labored to build, modify, repair and sail many of the greatest ships that helped us win wars and protect the homeland.

Four Aircraft Carriers at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, 1947 San Francisco, California

In the process, hundreds of thousands of naval servicemen and workers inhaled deadly asbestos fibers. Neither the U.S. Government nor the asbestos product manufacturers warned our nation's finest men and women that these fibers were like tiny time bombs ticking away, waiting to explode into cancer, such as mesothelioma.

In the U.S, over 3,000 Americans annually are diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, a fatal tumor of the linings of the lungs and abdomen caused only by asbestos fibers. About 30% of those unfortunate patients were exposed to asbestos while serving in the U.S. Navy or working in Navy shipyards.

We've known about mesothelioma since the 1940s. We've known since the 1950's that many children and wives of shipyard workers who brought the deadly dangerous fibers home on their clothing and skin were at risk for developing this insidious cancer.

Admiral James Zumwalt

The Department of Defense has research and treatment programs for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, nuclear detonations and Gulf War syndrome or Gulf War illness. The DOD even has research programs for breast and prostate cancers. Navy vets with mesothelioma inhaled asbestos while serving their country, which makes their injury a service connected disability -- a war-related injury. But neither the DOD nor the Department of Veterans Affairs have any research or treatment programs for vets with asbestos cancer.  Our federal government's neglect of our war heroes -- such as Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who died of mesothelioma in 2000, is unconscionable.

The Law Offices of Roger Worthington PC has represented hundreds of Navy boiler tenders, gunners, machinists, electricians and officers who have been stricken with asbestos disease. They served their country proudly and with honor. And they have been spoken up about how they have been mistreated and ignored. Here is what a few have said:

  • “The asbestos companies put profit over human life” - Paul Coyle, Boilertender, US Navy, 1960 to 1963. Passed away from mesothelioma on May 13, 2000
  • “When are we going to finally launch an all-out assault on this damn tumor that has already taken too many good men and women down?” - Don Thorp, Chief Warrant Officer, US Navy, 1964 to 1985. Passed away from mesothelioma on August 16, 2003
  • “I am proud of my service to my country. I knew there were risks associated with my service. I never knew the risks included dying of mesothelioma thirty years after my discharge. And I certainly didn't expect my country to turn a blind eye on veterans who got this disease.” Bob Treggett, Machinist Mate, US Navy, 1965 to 1972. Passed away from mesothelioma on August 23, 2008
  • Thurl Charles Van Kirk served as a US Navy seaman on five different ships from 1964 to 1968 and, for the last 20 years, has been the Senior Pastor at a community church in Running Springs, California. Pastor Van Kirk was diagnosed with meosothelioma in February 2008 and remains undaunted in his fight against the disease, choosing not to dwell on opportunities missed by others which could have prevented it. Pastor Van Kirk finds strength in the words of St. Paul in Phil. 3.13-14, "...one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

Even today, when Navy veterans are diagnosed with mesothelioma in California, they cannot count on the VA to offer them life-extending specialized treatments. There is only one thoracic oncologist on the West Coast who regularly treats vets with mesothelioma. His name is Dr. Robert Cameron. He is the head of surgery at UCLA Medical School and at the Wadsworth VA Hospital in West Los Angeles.  "In 2003, I met with the then Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi," recalled Dr. Cameron, who along with Roger was a director on the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation. "He understood the need to fund a treatment program for Navy vets with mesothelioma. He wasn't able to muster the money to launch the program, but Congress did agree to establish a mesothelioma registry and tissue bank. That's a start, but we're still about 25 years behind where we should be in terms of funding the research necessary to offer meaningful help to Navy vets with asbestos cancers."

Our country is currently waging two wars. Thousands of veterans will need medical care at the same time our medical care system is stressed to the breaking point. This may not be a good time politically for creating a new federal program for Navy vets with asbestos cancer, but it is never too late to do the right thing, or make good on a promise. Navy vets served us. They protected us. We failed to protect them from asbestos, despite the known dangers, and now about 1,000 vets every year are dying from mesothelioma. It's high time we served our heroes with the respect, hope and treatments they've earned.

For more information about the efforts of Worthington, Dr. Cameron, MARF and others to establish a mesothelioma medical and treatment program within the DOD and DVA, please click here and here

Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, bike racers and race fans. May the best man with the best team win, and don't forget to salute and honor our Navy veterans.

February 16, 2009