Marine Corps veterans and asbestos exposure was all too common for decades. The men and women who served may have come into contact with asbestos on ships, vehicles, and aircraft. Many later received a diagnosis of mesothelioma and are eligible to file claims with the VA for compensation.
Are Marine Corps Veterans at Risk for Asbestos Illnesses and Mesothelioma?
Yes, Marine Corps veterans have a higher risk for asbestos illness than the general population. Past asbestos exposure in the Marine Corps increases the risk for:
- Lung cancer
- Other respiratory conditions
Asbestos exposure is a big concern because of the risks it poses to human health. Breathing in the fibers that easily become airborne from asbestos can cause serious damage to internal tissues. This damage is the leading risk factor for mesothelioma, a deadly and aggressive type of cancer.
When inhaled, asbestos fibers get stuck in tissues, especially in airways, lungs, and pleura, the tissue lining around the lungs. These fibers can migrate to other locations, too, including the abdomen, through the lymph system.
Once lodged in the body, asbestos fibers remain there for long periods of time, causing damage. Illnesses caused by this damage are typically not diagnosed for several decades.
Veterans of the Marine Corps and other military branches may not realize they are sick for many years after service. Once diagnosed, the disease is usually well advanced, difficult to treat, and impossible to cure.
Asbestosis and Lung Cancer
Asbestosis and lung cancer are more common illnesses related to asbestos. Asbestosis is chronic but not deadly and cannot be cured. Lung cancer caused by asbestos is usually deadly and incurable, although it may be successfully treated if it is diagnosed early enough.
Less common but most deadly of all is mesothelioma. This cancer affects the lining of the lungs in most instances, is difficult to treat, and has low survival rates.
One of the most famous mesothelioma victims was actor Steve McQueen who died from the illness in 1980. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1947 to 1950 and was likely exposed to huge quantities of asbestos while working on pipes on ships. He was just one of many Marines who developed and died from this terrible disease after serving their country.
How Did the Marine Corps Use Asbestos?
Asbestos is a natural mineral that is mined and has properties that make it useful for several applications:
- Resistance to fire and heat
- Resistance to electrical current
- Resistance to chemical reactions
- Natural abundance
As industrial manufacturing and construction boomed in the late 1800s, the use of asbestos in all kinds of applications rose significantly.
The U.S. military, including the Marine Corps, began stockpiling asbestos on the eve of World War II, mostly for constructing and outfitting new ships. The military used asbestos most extensively on Navy ships, which transported Marines to locations around the world.
Asbestos on Ships
Asbestos was used on ships as insulation for electrical wires, pipes, ducts, boilers, and engine room components. It went into pumps, gaskets, and valves and as a fireproofing material.
In this latter capacity, it was used in walls and panels and in the bedding and clothing that many military members wore as protection against fire and heat.
Asbestos in Vehicles and Aircraft
The members of the Marine Corps were also exposed to asbestos because of its use in armored vehicles and aircraft. Aircraft technicians in the Marines were especially at risk because they repaired components like brake pads and engine gaskets, which included asbestos.
Tanks and other armored vehicles used by the Marines also contained asbestos in the insulation, in the gloves of gunners, as fireproofing, and in the gaskets, brakes, and certain engine parts.
Mechanics and gunners were especially at risk of asbestos exposure. Anyone who made repairs to any components of vehicles, aircraft, or ships that contained asbestos was at special risk of health effects.
Asbestos in Shipyards and on Bases
Serving in an active-duty role on a ship, on aircraft, or with vehicles was not the only way Marine veterans were exposed to asbestos. Almost every military installation used asbestos, including the shipyards and bases on which Marines worked and lived.
Because military ships used so much asbestos until about the 1970s, Marines who worked in shipyards were at risk for exposure to the fibers used in construction and repairs.
Asbestos was used virtually everywhere on bases and in the very barracks where these veterans lived and slept. The flooring, ceiling panels, roofing material, insulation, and other materials contained asbestos to add strength, heat and fire protection, and insulation.
In 1990 the Yuma Marine Corps Air Station, which is in Arizona, was listed as a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The designation came from asbestos contamination, including extensive contamination in the soil throughout the base.
Other bases contaminated with asbestos include Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base and El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
Does the Marine Corps Still Use Asbestos?
The Marine Corps and the rest of the military stopped using asbestos in new construction in the 1970s. However, much of the existing asbestos lingered for decades. Some of the asbestos has been remediated but much of it remains in place in equipment, buildings, and vehicles.
- Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program. The U.S. Navy instituted the AMSP to keep records of veterans known to have been exposed or likely exposed to asbestos. Veterans have access to asbestos-related health screenings through the program.
- Marine Corps Environmental Compliance and Protection Program. This program helps the Marine Corps comply with state and federal regulations for asbestos use, abatement, and exposure.
- Marine Corps Asbestos Safety Program. The Marine Corps has taken steps to remediate and remove asbestos in its installations wherever possible. This program also provides training and safety gear for those working with or near asbestos.
Are VA Benefits Available to Marine Corps Veterans with Asbestos Exposure?
Marine Corps veterans exposed to asbestos and later developed mesothelioma or other related illnesses may be eligible for free assistance from the VA in the form of disability compensation and health care.
The Marines and U.S. Navy AMSP screens and monitors those service members and veterans at risk from past asbestos exposure. Through this program, Marine veterans can get free, early screening for asbestos-related diseases.
Additional benefits that apply to many Marine Corps veterans exposed to asbestos include:
- Medical care at VA hospitals and medical centers, including those specializing in mesothelioma
- Disability compensation for mesothelioma
- Special monthly compensation for various care needs
- Other benefits based on eligibility, including insurance and housing grants
Dependents of deceased veterans may also seek dependency and indemnity compensation through the VA.
How to Make a VA Claim
To get VA benefits, Marine Corps veterans must apply directly to the VA. You can do this by mail, online, or in person at a VA office. You can also rely on a Veterans Service Officer (VSO) to assist and represent you. To file a claim for benefit, you need the following:
- Service documents to prove eligibility
- A complete claim application
- VA and private medical records related to asbestos illnesses
- Any supporting statements from fellow service members, friends, or family
Once you have filed, wait for any requests from the VA, such as medical appointments. On average, it takes 152 days for the VA to make a decision on a claim.
Legal Help for Marine Corps Asbestos Victims
Marine Corps benefit claims can be complicated. If you need help, you can rely on a VSO or a lawyer accredited by the VA. A lawyer specializing in mesothelioma and asbestos is especially helpful in gathering evidence and proof for veterans to make successful claims.
A lawyer can also help veterans file a lawsuit or access funds from asbestos trusts. While military asbestos victims cannot sue the U.S. government for past exposure, they can potentially take action against asbestos manufacturers that supplied the military.
If you served in the Marine Corps and believe you were exposed to asbestos or have a related illness, talk to a lawyer right away. They can help you get the justice and compensation you deserve.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.