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SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 20, 2005
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OP-ED

Alabama vets want asbestos reform law now

By John Hancock

Our senators in Washington have the opportunity to do a service for a great number of Alabama's veterans. These veterans, and thousands of others across the country, are suffering from diseases brought on by exposure to asbestos during their years in the military.

Before the dangers were understood, asbestos was widely used in military construction from World War II through the Vietnam War. Navy veterans got the worse of it, since it was commonly used as insulating material aboard ships.

What's more, many sailors and workers from the shipyards — including those that crowded the Gulf Coast during the Second World War and beyond — have suffered terribly from debilitating asbestos-related illnesses that leave them nearly incapable of breathing. And thousands of our veterans have died from these illnesses.

To make matters worse, there are few places for veterans with asbestos-related illnesses to turn for relief.

The law prevents veterans from seeking compensation from their former employer, the U.S. government, in the courts. Going after the companies that supplied the government with this deadly material is a blind alley, because most of those companies are bankrupt and don't exist any more. Even if there is a company left to sue, many veterans won't live to see any kind of compensation because the line at the courthouse for asbestos cases is just too long.

But some of our U.S. senators are giving this problem the serious attention it deserves.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter is hard at work on a bill that would create a national asbestos victims' compensation fund to solve the crisis. The government wouldn't have to pay a penny under this plan. Businesses and insurance companies will pay into the fund. Truly sick victims with asbestos-related illnesses will get paid quickly, without having to hire a trial lawyer or face the uncertainty in the court system.

This new system will be particularly important for veterans and other victims who currently have limited avenues for getting their just compensation for asbestos-related injuries.

That's why more than a dozen national veterans' service organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have endorsed a victim compensation fund solution to the current system.

In 2004, the VFW and several other groups even passed national resolutions on this issue. The message is clear: A national asbestos victims' compensation fund is a priority for our country's veterans.

A fund will bring certainty for veterans and other victims. And under this system, any veterans' benefits to which our former men and women in uniform are entitled to for their asbestos-related injuries will be protected.

Now is time for other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, to roll up their sleeves and help enact this important legislation for veterans. The brave men and women of Alabama who've sacrificed for our country in the armed services deserve nothing less.

John Hancock is past state commander of the Alabama Department of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

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