On October 13, the U.S. Navy will celebrate its 238th birthday. It was on this day in 1775 that the Continental Congress established the small naval force that was the forerunner of today’s modern American Navy. As we take a moment to salute the courage and commitment of all U.S. sailors past and present, it is also a time to think about the man behind this annual fleet-wide commemoration of the nation’s naval history.
Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. was appointed in 1970 as the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) – the youngest person ever named to the post. While serving as CNO, he initiated a series of reforms to revitalize the Navy. It was Admiral Zumwalt who authorized the celebration of the Navy Birthday on Oct. 13 as a way to highlight the Navy’s proud heritage. He took on a different battle after retiring from the naval service: Admiral Zumwalt fought to get government medical benefits to help Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange during that war.
In a cruel irony, this champion for the medical rights of veterans was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1999. Like many Navy veterans, Admiral Zumwalt was likely exposed to asbestos during his naval service.
Mesothelioma is an aggressive and incurable cancer caused by asbestos exposure. And one third of mesothelioma cases involve Navy or shipyard exposure.
In the past, the military used many materials that contained asbestos due to their heat resistance, insulation, and fireproofing capabilities. The Navy used asbestos-containing products in its shipyards and in ships that were built before the mid-1970s.
Admiral Zumwalt died in 2000 at age 79. His story is similar to that of thousands of veterans who were exposed to asbestos in the military. A great way to serve his memory – and theirs – is to advocate for a U.S. ban on asbestos.