United States soldiers sign up to serve their country and protect America from the enemy. But throughout the history of our armed forces, the military has at times failed to protect its own from occupational hazards that have injured hundreds of thousands of service members and cost taxpayers billions of dollars in settlements.
In addition to the physical toll of such incidents, the mental health of our soldiers has suffered in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. As a result, some soldiers are unable to return to society and live functional, productive and joyful lives.
At least five times in recent history, thousands of U.S. soldiers have been exposed to toxic hazards due to the U.S. military’s poor understanding of the risks posed by chemicals on military bases, military-issued equipment and the military’s own practices while at sea.
This August, 3M agreed to a $6 billion settlement involving nearly 250,000 veterans who suffered hearing loss, tinnitus, or both as a result of not being properly instructed on how to use the company’s combat earplug devices. In the largest mass tort in U.S. history, a quarter of a million veterans sued the supplier of the earplugs, 3M and subsidiary Aearo Technologies, for the problems surrounding the earplugs. The earplugs were sold to the military from 2003 to 2015.
In another disaster that spiraled into a large-scale environmental catastrophe, the military dumped solvents into the aquifer at Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina between the 1950s and 1987, when the base was declared a superfund site.
Government records indicate that from back in the early 1980s, the Marine Corps knew of the dangers the chemicals posed to the Marines on the base and civilians that lived nearby. At times, the military pointed the finger at a cleaning company for horrific water contamination that harmed up to 1 million people, contributing to a variety of serious illnesses, cancer, lost births, death and other significant health problems.
Many Marines filed lawsuits starting in 2009 against the military for injuries resulting from this water contamination, but the lawsuits were all thrown out for being filed too many years after the service members were injured. But one lawyer, Ed Belle, spent nearly a decade and a staggering sum of his own money to lobby Congress to pass legislation to compensate these veterans, family members and others who lived at Camp Lejeune and were injured as a result of the water contamination.
In 2022, Congress passed the PACT Act, which set up a new claim process and opened a new timeframe to file claims by those affected.
And recently, news broke that there might be an expedited settlement program for some of the veterans and civilians who lived in the affected area and are currently involved in litigation. Currently, 93,000 claims have been filed seeking compensation. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the PACT Act will cost the federal government more than $163 billion in the next decade.
Unfortunately, water contamination is not just at Camp Lejeune military base. The Department of Defense concluded in April that the military has been providing unsafe water to 175,000 service members each year at 24 military installations. The water contains PFAs, or what are referred to as “forever chemicals.”
The PFAs are compounds that never disintegrate and are used in numerous products, including the fire foam that firefighters and the military use to put out fires. The DOD acknowledges that 450 military installations have drinking or groundwater with PFAs. A nonprofit organization called the Environmental Working Group has concluded that numbers are far greater than what the DOD is reporting and that over 600,000 service members at 116 military installations have been exposed to these polluted waters.
Not only have earplugs and water contamination caused widespread public health issues among these veterans, service members and the others folks—numerous others have been injured, diseased, or killed as a result of the way the military has burned its trash. For years, the military would burn jet fuel, chemicals, tires, and equipment in burn pits which would erupt into plumes of smoke. The PACT Act creates a $280 billion stream of federal funding to help the numerous veterans affected by the burning of trash.
And not to be overlooked, Military.com reported earlier this year that one of the U.S. Navy’s ships, the USS Boxer, compromised its own water supply in 2016. The USS Boxer is the flagship for the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group and carries a daily crew of over 1,000 soldiers, plus 1,500 Marines.
In March 2016, the USS Boxer dumped 400,000 gallons of diesel fuel 150 miles off the shores of Korea and Japan. According to the investigation, jet fuel made its way into the potable water that naval officers were using for the basics of life. Marines and Navy sailors were advised by the Boxer’s senior medical officer that the water was safe to drink.
The investigation revealed that the military’s internal emails regarding this ship were deleted. Some believe that these emails show that the Navy knew of this problem. When questioned during the investigation the Navy claimed that there was no official paper trail documenting the incident. Finally, the Navy is acknowledging the problem. Numerous veterans who drank and bathed in the polluted water now suffer from physical and psychological illnesses, but their disability claims were rejected by the VA.
Navy vessels have historically dumped fuel into the ocean. The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report noting that the dumping of fuel in oceans was a common practice. However, in July, four members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro demanding answers and accountability regarding the events leading up to the contamination and the subsequent impacts on the sailors’ health.
Soldiers sign up to serve our country and protect us from our enemies, but the military has too often failed to protect them from occupational hazards. These hazards have caused hundreds of thousands of service members to suffer from physical and mental health problems, and they have cost taxpayers billions of dollars in settlements.
The PACT Act is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. We need to do more to ensure that our soldiers are safe and that they are properly compensated when they are injured.
We need to hold the military accountable for its failures. We need to investigate the allegations that the military knew about the dangers of the earplugs, the water contamination, and the burn pits, and that it did nothing to protect its soldiers.
We need to make sure that our soldiers have access to the healthcare they need and that they are not denied disability benefits.
And we need to commit to doing better in the future. We need to invest in new technologies and training to protect our soldiers from occupational hazards. And we need to make sure that the military has a culture of safety that puts the well-being of its soldiers first.
Our soldiers deserve our support. We need to do everything we can to ensure that they are safe and healthy.