John Conway grew up wanting to be in the Navy, and he was proud to serve his country. 

Little did he know the biggest service-related threat to his life would come decades after his 19-year military career. 

Conway died in 2015, three years after he was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure. According to The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com, mesothelioma affects the mesothelium, the thin layer of tissue that covers most of the organs.

Conway served during the peak of the asbestos era, when ships were built with asbestos and fireproofing materials. As the boiler technician chief on the USS Wasps, Conway recalled stripping asbestos insulation off below-deck steam pipes. 

“It used to look like it was snowing down there,” Conway told The Mesothelioma Center in 2013.

U.S. Census records show veterans account for 8 percent of the total U.S. population. But they comprise more than 30 percent of mesothelioma cases.

Asbestos: A silent killer in war

Conway is one of thousands of veterans who lost their lives to malignant mesothelioma. Countless others continue battling asbestos-related illnesses long after their military service ended. 

“Asbestos and mesothelioma are silent killers among our nation’s veterans,” says Aaron Munz, former U.S. Army captain and director of the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center. “When I served, asbestos was never something my soldiers or I ever worried about. But I have seen firsthand the effect this toxic mineral has on our heroes.”

From the 1930s to the late ’70s, every branch of the U.S. military had used asbestos. Its durability and fireproof qualities aimed to protect the men and women defending the United States. But it also exposed soldiers to a carcinogen. 

“In the military, there are literally thousands of things that transfer heat,” says Joe Lahav, legal advisor for The Mesothelioma Center. “Anywhere you have a lot of heat transfer, you have a lot of asbestos use. And anywhere you have asbestos use, there are plenty of asbestos fibers in the air. Veterans got sick inhaling and ingesting these fibers.”  

Overcoming barriers to care

Mesothelioma carries a latency period of 20-50 years, meaning veterans may be diagnosed decades after asbestos exposure. 

The cancer is incurable, and because it is rare — accounting for only 0.3 percent of all U.S. cancer diagnoses — finding quality treatment can be difficult. For veterans who receive care through the Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system, getting treatment may be especially challenging.

Only 1,700 VA medical facilities serve more than 22 million veterans in the United States today. And the majority of those don’t offer the specialists or services needed to treat an aggressive cancer such as mesothelioma. 

Paying it forward 

Munz and other VA-accredited claims agents at The Mesothelioma Center’s Veterans Department assist veterans affected by service-related asbestos exposure, help them gather and file VA paperwork, and provide access to specialized care and support.

The department helped the Conways navigate the VA claims process, allowing them to focus on John Conway’s care at the International Mesothelioma Program at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“It is my honor to continue to help my fellow veterans who are fighting a new threat to their health decades after their service,” Munz says.