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A Sad Truth for Veterans: Asbestos and the 'Political Pawns'

Every year, hundreds or even thousands of American veterans who thought they survived military service discover that they were wrong; exposure to asbestos was a mortal wound that took decades to surface, evolving into the much-advertised mesothelioma, a terminal cancer.
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Every year, hundreds or even thousands of American veterans who thought they survived military service discover that they were wrong; exposure to asbestos was a mortal wound that took decades to surface, evolving into the much-advertised mesothelioma, a terminal cancer.

You would find more common ground between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders than amongst the sides arguing about asbestos cancer policy. However, both the victims' attorneys and defenders of corporate American agree on one thing: United States military veterans are getting the short end of a deadly stick.

Both sides also agree that the government under which those vets served excludes itself from the resulting accountability, at least in the U.S. courts. What they do not agree upon is how to fix it, and the resulting debate has left veterans taking sides.

Some background: Reuters news service explains that:

... asbestos, a mineral with a natural resistance to heat, was once commonly used as insulation. Breathing in asbestos fibers is known to cause mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer, and continues to be blamed for thousands of U.S. deaths annually... since the first big lawsuits were filed in the 1970s, asbestos litigation has become the country's largest mass tort, costing more than $50 billion in compensation and legal fees and forcing about 100 U.S. companies into bankruptcy.

The website puts veterans into context:

While veterans represent 8% of the nation's population, they comprise an astonishing 30% of all known mesothelioma deaths that have occurred in this country... virtually every ship commissioned by the United States Navy between 1930 and about 1970 contained several tons of asbestos insulation in the engine room, along the miles of pipe aboard ship and in the walls and doors that required fireproofing...

A review of online asbestos-cancer websites makes the accountability context fairly obvious: "You can't sue the military." The corporate defense side is also hit, because courts have ruled that you can't just make a defense of "the Navy required us to do it."

So cases that might have justifiably been against military are brought against the asbestos manufacturers -- thus those bankruptcies.

The asbestos-info websites are also not huge fans of how our government is responding the mesothelioma outcomes.

For example, the website asserts that:

... the Navy aggressively pursued the use of asbestos because of its affordability, tensile strength and resistance to heat and chemical damage. These functional properties contributed to its extensive use as an insulator, as well as a fireproofing and building material in nearly every part of each ship -- from bow to stern.

The fate of veterans in the asbestos-cancer world is, of course, part of the political debate. The issue de jour is the FACT Act, for "furthering asbestos claims transparency." Created by mostly Republican lawmakers aligned with asbestos defendants, it has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and is being debated in the U.S. Senate.

The debate breaks almost exactly along political party lines.

Five states have passed FACT Act versions that require asbestos bankruptcy Trust Funds to report certain claims activities. The pro-FACT argument is that "fraud" and double-dipping depletes funds, resulting in lower payouts for legit claims. That's an allegation that victims' attorneys passionately denounce, blaming instead failure to adequately fund the trusts.

Vets are, of course, caught up in all this. I've noted before that asbestos lawsuits, in the hands of some (not all!) lawyers, can turn victims into "perjury pawns," meaning that they are coached or otherwise led to "remember" products beneficial to their case -- in reality, I'm convinced, many people just sign anything the lawyers say to sign, and say what the lawyers indicate they should say.

A case in point: when Forbes wrote about a high-profile bankruptcy case involving the gasket maker Garlock Sealing, the magazine cited a federal judge's findings that:

... in California, a former Navy electronics technician collected $450,000 from Garlock after denying he had ever seen anyone removing pipe insulation. Then he filed seven trust claims based on declaration he had personally removed insulation, naming the products by name.

"Garlock" has become a rallying cry for the FACT Act movement with victims' attorneys insisting it means little and veterans taking both sides.

Last year, the DC-based newspaper The Hill published an anti-FACT opinion piece signed by Hershel Gober, national legislative director of the Military Order of the Purple Heart of the U.S.A; Michael Little, national legislative director of the Association of the United States; and Diane Zumatto, national legislative director of American Veterans.

The sources asserted, among other things, that:

... these [asbestos bankruptcy] trusts were grossly underfunded when they were created because asbestos corporations never want to commit enough money into the funds to fully compensate all of the victims they've harmed or killed. The FACT Act would further stretch the already resource-depleted trusts at the expense of victims seeking compensation for their injuries.

That argument was in response to an earlier Hill column by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) who argued that "asbestos reforms are needed to protect first responders and veterans." Although there is a reported $36 billion allotted for the trusts from bankrupt companies, the business-side Bates White firm has reported that the trusts are still being depleted.

Just recently, John Brieden III, a Texas judge and former national commander of The American Legion, joined The Hill's coverage with his pro-FACT opinion:

In the case of opposition to the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act, I find myself in the unusual position of encouraging Congress to take some veterans' voices with a grain of salt, given the considerable financial incentives of the trial bar - the money behind FACT's opposition campaign. Some veterans' groups have aligned with the trial bar and positioned themselves against transparency in asbestos trust fund claims. It is a awkward position for those dedicated to the protection and preservation of freedom, as true liberty is not possible under a government-sanctioned cloak of secrecy.

In the debate over FACT and other issues, few would argue that we should be overly proud of the way either the U.S. military or the justice system treats asbestos-wounded vets.

What the debate clearly establishes is that the same context that gave us "perjury pawns" could also be turning at least some of our veterans into "political pawns."

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