Memorial Day Hero Spotlight: Commemorating the lives of Jim and Frank, Two Navy Veterans

Memorial Day, the day we remember the millions of brave veterans who died defending our freedom, celebrates its 52nd official holiday this year. While many of our armed service members died fighting in battles abroad, many others have died at home, as a consequence of their service. To this day, thousands of veterans are only now just being diagnosed with fatal, service-related diseases.

Anywhere between 10 and 50 years can pass between first exposure to asbestos and diagnosis of asbestos-caused mesothelioma. Due to this long latency period, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases have yet to claim the lives of countless others who served in the military in recent decades. According to a new estimate by the International Commission of Occupational Health (ICOH), asbestos-related diseases claim almost 40,000 U.S. lives per year, a great portion of which are veterans.

Memorial Day is particularly significant for the U.S. Navy, whose veterans account for 33 percent of all mesothelioma cases. All of these numbers, though devastating, are just numbers in the end. Sometimes, it’s difficult to appreciate the suffering of others without understanding what individuals went through.

This year, we want to commemorate two of those individuals. These veterans may have fought different battles for their country, but they once shared the same battle with cancer at home.

Frank’s Mesothelioma Story

December 7, 2011, the day Frank Curre passed away from mesothelioma, was the same day he survived the Pearl Harbor attack 70 years earlier.

Frank spent many years in the Navy after joining at age 17 – first as a boatswain’s mate aboard the U.S.S. Tennessee (BB-43), and on the day of the attack, as a mess cook. It was that morning he witnessed Japanese bombs pummel the U.S.S. Arizona into the air, killing 2,403 fellow Americans.

Frank was first exposed to asbestos in his work on the naval base, then through the wreckage of the bombing, and then, later, at his other job maintaining asbestos-lined printing presses for a local newspaper. His entire career exposed him to the deadly mineral on a daily basis.

Frank eventually began to experience typical asbestos-related symptoms like chest pain and difficulty breathing. Diagnosed shortly after doctors discovered a spot on his lung, Frank was 88-years-old when he died a year later. He never let his health get in the way of his fight for justice, but he also never let go of his memories.

“There’s a lot of stuff I don’t remember much in my old age. But that day? Everything that happened that day is tattooed on your soul,” Frank told the Waco Tribune-Herald in 2010. “It never leaves you. You carry it with you the rest of your life.”

Jim’s Mesothelioma Story

Thirty years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jim Gahan began working as a Navy boiler technician. He spent the next 20 years ensuring the naval ships functioned safely, unaware that the asbestos-containing building materials and machinery he worked with would ultimately cost him his life.

It wasn’t until 2009 that Jim finally received his mesothelioma diagnosis. After years of consistent but unknown asbestos exposure, doctors said he had only mere months to live.

Jim and his wife faced unmanageable medical bills for the specialized treatment needed to improve his chances of survival, as his disease was so advanced. Ultimately, Jim received compensation that would extend his life far beyond doctors’ expectations, affording him and his family peace of mind until the end – 19 months after his diagnosis.

Sadly, many veterans who were exposed to asbestos like Jim can expect a similar fate.

The Nation’s Veterans and Asbestos

Until the mid-1970s, asbestos was considered the “miracle fiber” for shipbuilding – so much so that the U.S. government mandated its use on nearly every ship in the Navy. It was everywhere: in adhesives, boilers, pipe coverings, deck coverings, valves and more. It was used just as heavily in engine rooms as living quarters. Sailors who slept below pipes told stories of waking up covered in toxic asbestos dust.

Due to their pervasive exposure to asbestos, Navy veterans now face a disproportionately high risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Thousands have exchanged peaceful retirement for diseases they cannot survive – worse, without access to the benefits they need for treatment. Added to veterans’ difficulties proving eligibility for benefits, big business has tried to rig legislation to further delay and deny justice.

It’s not too late for veterans with mesothelioma to still get help. Legal counsel leverages an abundance of resources to determine the source of survivors’ exposure so they can receive the benefits they deserve. On top of that, mesothelioma lawsuits have required asbestos companies to pay reparations for endangering veterans by keeping exposure risks a secret.

In fact, we can all help. This Memorial Day is a perfect opportunity for us to raise awareness of these risks, which many Americans still don’t understand. The more people aware of the link between veterans and mesothelioma, the quicker we can advance research and better their chances of survival.

Want to hear more stories? You can listen to Frank’s in a 2011 interview with NPR, plus interviews with hundreds of other veterans at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Make the Connection.