Men and women who serve in the US military pay a hefty price for their heroic service and patriotism. During training and active duty, military service members are at an increased risk of being injured or becoming severely ill. Increased exposure to harmful chemicals, gasses, and substances during combat or other jobs in active duty put military men and women at risk. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is involved in providing physical and mental health care to military veterans as a homage to their service. There are more than 170 medical centers for military veterans and over a thousand outpatient medical sites. Veterans get treated for a range of illnesses and life-long injuries – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This article addresses seven common injuries and illnesses that veterans get treated for.
US military veterans are at an elevated risk of mesothelioma and asbestos-related illnesses. Mesothelioma is a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral widely used in steel, construction, and the building industries from the early 1900s till the 80s. Various departments of the military used asbestos for its heat-resistant properties and inexpensiveness.
Manufacturers of asbestos products concealed its harmfulness from the general public, government, and industries. Fortunately, in the 1980s, asbestos was banned, but the damage is irreversible. Asbestos affects the outer lining of organs and can initial asbestos exposure; it takes up to twenty to fifty years for an asbestos-related illness to develop, like mesothelioma. By then, the damage is done. The treatment only subsides the symptoms, as mesothelioma is incurable. However, numerous organizations like mesotheliomaveterans.org help veterans and their families get compensated for financial, medical, and psychological loss through a lawsuit.
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
ALS is a neurodegenerative disorder impacting neurons in the brain and spinal cord. It also deteriorates muscles and impedes locomotion. Military veterans are more likely to develop ALS than civilians. However, 5-10% of ALS cases have a genetic history of the illness. The risk factors for the remaining 90-95% are unclear. For veterans, ALS may be caused by the trauma experienced during active duty or exposure to toxic materials and heavy metals.
The early symptoms of ALS are subtle but affect routine activities, though often ignored. ALS can affect body parts like the limbs, cranial nerves, respiratory system, or brain. The limb-related issues range from muscle weakness and stiffness to loss of movement or the inability to perform basic tasks like tying shoelaces. ALS onset in cranial nerves may cause slurred speech, hoarseness in voice, and uncontrollable laughter or crying. Respiratory onset can cause shortness of breath, and cognitive onset may cause mood irritability.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
A report by the VA. Health Care System in 2019 stated the prevalence of MS has increased among military veterans over the past fifteen years. The actual number may be higher since not many veterans receive care from the VHA. MS is a neurodegenerative illness that impacts the brain and spinal cord, impeding vision and locomotive abilities. There is no cure for MS, and it’s a lifelong illness that can transpire into a disability.
MS has a range of symptoms like fatigue, bladder issues, blurred vision, poor balance, and cognition. Since MS is an autoimmune condition, the immune system mistakenly attacks the nerve cells and brain. It can occur due to environmental, genetic, or a combination of both factors. Veterans may be at a high risk of MS due to their genetic makeup, which is very rare. Environmental factors like vitamin D deficiency and viral infections may cause MS. Some countries where military service members are appointed have a high risk for infections. Also, women are more likely to develop MS than men, though it’s unclear why.
Parkinson’s Disease (PD)
More than 110,000 US military veterans receive treatment for Parkinson’s disease through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Parkinson’s is a debilitating neurological disease that is common among people above the age of 50 years. Though it’s incurable, treatment can help subside its symptoms. The exact cause is unknown, but Parkinson’s may have a link with genetic and environmental factors.
For military veterans diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, herbicides like Agent Orange are considered risk factors. Agent Orange contains dioxin, a harmful chemical that causes hyperpigmentation, liver issues, and chloracne (severe skin disease). Dioxin can cause immune system issues, nervous system illnesses, muscle deterioration, hormonal imbalance, and diabetes. During the Vietnam War, the use of Agent Orange was widespread. Although its production ended in the 1970s, its impact remains. Veterans suffering from PD due to herbicide exposure can apply for healthcare and financial compensation from the Department of VA.
Military veterans are at an increased risk of developing brain cancer due to harmful chemical exposure during active duty. Veterans are often diagnosed with glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer caused by burning pits and harmful toxins in the environment. Brain cancer is most common amongst veterans of the Vietnam and Gulf wars. Veterans believed that harmful toxins, radiations, smoke, and dust from combats are the likely causes of brain tumors and cancer. Other than that, certain countries where the military service members worked have high concentrations of air contaminants. Besides the incidence of brain cancer, mortality from brain cancer is also high among war veterans.
During World War II, harmful gases like sarin, cyclosarin, and pesticides were widespread among military bases. Symptoms of toxin exposure may impede neurological functioning and cause behavioral disorders and cognitive dysfunction while compromising the immune system. Other factors like exposure to oil well fire and multiple vaccinations before active duty also correlate with brain cancer.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Besides physical health issues and injuries, military veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety after returning from war-torn areas. The term “shell shock” was coined to describe the post-war psychological trauma faced by military members. PTSD is not a standalone illness; it can cause many other mental health problems like anxiety, depression, insomnia, and suicidal ideation.
While PTSD is not limited to veterans, they are more likely to experience it. Symptoms of PTSD may include war flashbacks, sensitivity to sounds, insomnia, and chronic stress. Due to PTSD and chronic stress, veterans may resort to harmful substances and alcohol. Substance addiction is a co-morbid illness with depression, insomnia, and PTSD. It may lead to suicidal ideation as well.
Amputations and Injuries
Besides diseases, military veterans are more likely to get amputations due to battle injuries. Many veterans from combat zones suffer from the loss of limbs that are amputated to avoid spreading infection. Although survival rates for military service members have increased due to advancements in protective gear, the risk remains.
Other injuries include burns, fractured bones, brain, spinal cord injuries, and shrapnel wounds. Some military members also suffer from loss of vision and paralysis due to combative duty. Aftereffects of injuries and amputation may cause psychological distress or trauma.
Military veterans pay the price for their service through mental and physical health issues. In most cases, the damage is irreversible. However, lifelong injury and physical impairment can profoundly impact mental health. Veterans can seek financial and medical assistance through the Department of Veterans Affairs.