Mesothelioma, as we know, does not respect fame, fortune, fitness, beauty
or power. It has taken down movie stars (
Steve McQueen), athletes (
Merlin Olsen), artists (
Warren Zevon), politicians (
Bruce Vento), and warriors, such as
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt.
Back in the late 1990s, when I helped launch the first-ever meso medical
research foundation (
), Congressman Bruce Vento had just been diagnosed. Although his plate
was full, and understandably he was reluctant to let the
asbestos cancer shape his legacy, he agreed to serve on MARF’s board of directors.
Vento was exposed to asbestos while working construction jobs earlier
in his career.
About the same time, Admiral Zumwalt, who served as the Chief Naval Officer
from 1970 to 1974, was also diagnosed, and soon after he passed away.
Admiral Zumwalt was exposed to asbestos while serving his country on Navy
ships. His mesothelioma was truly a “war-related disease.”
I was privileged to meet Congressman Vento, but I never met Admiral Zumwalt.
We reached out to the Admiral’s children at the time his condition
was made public to ask whether they would be interested in by serving
on MARF’s Board. Mouzetta Zumwalt-Weathers agreed.
Branding Meso as a War-Related Disease
In the early days, Mouzetta helped MARF shape it’s research and advocacy
agenda. This included the effort to re-define mesothelioma as a “
service connected disability” for thousands of asbestos-exposed US Navy Veterans. We hoped the
“rebranding” would help persuade Congress and the DOD, in
particular, to establish an asbestos cancer research program, much in
the same way as it did for Agent Orange injured veterans.
In the early 2000s, there was also an effort in Washington, D.C., led by
Senator Patty Murray, to ban asbestos. It was during this mission that
I had the honor of meeting retired Lt. Colonel Jim Zumwalt (USMC). Jim gave a
passionate speechon the day the bill to ban asbestos was announced, a speech laced with
history, poetry, and the call to duty.
Jim Zumwalt became my hero of sorts. Like his father, who was not afraid
to shake things up in the pursuit of progress, Jim expressed indignant
disbelief that despite knowing about asbestos diseases since the early
1900s, and despite the thousands of warriors and civilians whose lives
were cut short by asbestos, the US Government had yet to
ban the evil carcinogen.
I'd Share A Fox Hole with this Guy
I was at once struck by Jim’s palpable strength, his charismatic
leadership and his Homeric honor. I remember thinking at the time that
if I was ever thrown into combat I’d like this guy in my fox hole.
Over the ensuing years, we exchanged e-mails and I always looked forward
to reading his columns. Not only is Jim an amazing orator, the former
Marine is an author and
journalist who writes muscular and cliché-free columns about some of the unsung
yet dire threats facing our national security.
So a few months ago, when Jim invited me to join his family in the “laying
of the keel” ceremony for a
new class of destroyers named after his father, I lept at the opportunity. I’m certainly
not a student of naval warfare. I don't invest in companies who profit
handsomely from the military industrial complex. I don’t hob knob
with politicians. And Bath, Maine was 3000 miles from home. But both Jim
and Mouzetta had volunteered their time and energy to help causes that
were near and dear to me, so I felt like it was the least that I could do.
Meso: In Search of a Poster Boy
And, on some level, as an asbestos
research advocate, I was curious about whether anyone would mention Admiral Zumwalt’s
cause of death. It’s one of those telling details I look for. Every
cancer, it seems, has a “poster” boy or girl. Mesothelioma
certainly has its celebrities, but for understandable reasons, few survivors,
and even fewer of their heirs, are eager to attach their names to something
so hideous as mesothelioma. Most of us want to be remembered for how we
lived, and the things we accomplished, not how we died, or what killed us.
Did I want, in some selfish way, for my hero Jim Zumwalt to mention how
his father died? I’m not sure. General Dynamics printed up a very
classy glossy brochure about the Admiral Zumwalt. Inside were headshot
pictures of the three surviving Zumwalt children and the deceased fourth
and oldest son, Elmo Zumwalt III. Beneath the latter’s photo, the
caption read: “A Navy Lieutenant and Vietnam veteran, Elmo died in 1988
as a result of Agent Orange induced cancer.”
There it was, in frank language, the connection between the war, the combatant
and the product that took his life. The brochure told us what killed the
son, a carcinogenic herbicide used by our forces to defoliate the jungles
of Vietnam. But it didn't mention what killed the father and namesake
of the new line of sophisticated destroyers -- asbestos products.
I listened with rapt attention to the speeches. Would anyone mention asbestos?
Jim delivered a fine speech, telling us that in 2000 when President Clinton
decided to name a new line of destroyers after Admiral Zumwalt, the decision
was met with stiff resistance. But for the valiant advocacy of a few stalwart
officers, according to Jim, it never would’ve happened. Mavericks
tend to make enemies.
Mouzetta first thanked the thousands of Bath Iron Works shipyard workers
who have been diligently building the revolutionary ship. She then read
a letter from President Bill Clinton, who praised the Admiral for championing
the civil liberties of all sailors, regardless of their sex, race or creed.
And Ann Zumwalt stepped up to the podium and playfully announced that Daddy
always loved her best, adding a welcomed dose of warmth and humor to the
solemn affair on such a frigid day. She said hello to her Mom and Dad
up above, who “had the best seats in the house.” And, with
a dramatic flair, she fittingly put her Dad in a long line of intrepid
sailors going back to Odysseus: strong leaders who identified with the
hardscrabble, bloody knuckled sea dogs. He was, she said, a "sailor's
To say that I was moved and amazed by the Zumwalt children is a massive
understatement. Their Dad was a giant. It was not a day to grieve. Instead
it was a day to celebrate and give thanks to all the many friends and
shipmates who remained loyal to their Dad when the bullets flew, as they
inevitably did around a man who wasn’t afraid to go toe to toe with
Neither the children, nor any of three other dignitaries who spoke at the
ceremony mentioned asbestos or mesothelioma. I searched the internet the
next day and of the 20 or more articles that covered the “laying
of the keel” ceremony, not one mentioned what killed Admiral Zumwalt.
Getting it Right
Does this upset me? I’d like to say it doesn’t, as my family
and I were honored to be able to witness an important milestone in our
nation’s naval history. I met Jim after the ceremony and sincerely
congratulated him and his sisters for their moving tribute. I didn't
dwell on the "elephant in the room" omission – it was
their story, and their ship, and their father, and their moment, not mine.
And, yet, now I admit to feeling a bit uneasy. Admiral Zumwalt was known
for telling it like it was. When it was highly unpopular, he took a stand
to open up the US Navy to African Americans and to women. He cared about
the living conditions of the sailors. He cared about boosting morale.
He identified with the sailors and their welfare was important to him.
He struck me as the kind of leader who would want to get it right.
Ten years ago I went to Washington DC for a tribute to Congressman Vento,
who at the time was being treated for mesothelioma. President Clinton
spoke, as did one of the greatest raconteurs of our time, Garrison Keillor.
Nobody uttered the word “asbestos” or “mesothelioma,”
like the words themselves were toxic.
A few years later Keillor wrote a book and in the book he mentioned meeting
Congressman Vento who, he wrote, at the time was being treated for “lung
cancer.” Mesothelioma is not lung cancer. I wasn't trying to
be picky or pedantic. It wasn’t an “inside baseball”
or “gotcha” thing but I felt compelled to write to Keillor.
I explained to him that it was “mesothelioma” not “lung
cancer” which had stricken the Congressman. The distinction was
important, I wrote, because mesothelioma was an orphan, “industrial”
disease that nobody wanted to talk about, let alone try to treat or cure.
Garrison Keillor wrote me back, which I thought was honorable in itself.
He wrote words to the effect that he lamented his error, and that from
what he knew of the man, Bruce would’ve wanted him “to get
What Would the Admiral Want?
The Zumwalts have given much to our country. The admiral and his oldest
son were both casualties of war-related injuries. Both Jim and Mouzetta
have donated their valuable time and energy in the campaign to ban asbestos
and fund meso research. I can see why on a chilly day in the short amount
of time allotted they chose not to mention what took their Dad’s
life. It's a special honor to have a new class of ships named after your Dad.
And yet, I guess I’m disappointed that nobody, at any time, in any
medium, including the media who photographed, filmed and covered the event,
attempted to “get it right. “
The history books will remember Admiral Zumwalt as a "sailor's
sailor" who dragged the Navy "kicking and screaming" into
the 20th Century. My guess, and this is only a guess, as I never met the
man, is that the Admiral would’ve been pleased to allocate a slice
of that $10 billion budget to fund a federal program to help treat his
fellow sailors who were put in harms way by asbestos. He would've
wanted to be remembered for making things right. Crusading for mesothelioma
research is an exhausting and thankless mission. I’ll end this account
by noting that over a decade since mesothelioma took the lives of great
Americans like Congressman Vento and Admiral Zumwalt, we still don’t
have a bona fide federally funded asbestos cancer research and treatment
program. And, unforgivably, asbestos has not been banned. Progress is
slow going. Hope can hold out only so long against the corrosive rust
Congress has budgeted around $10 billion for the three Zumwalt destroyers.
$10 billion with a "B." Thanks in large part to the advocacy
of Admiral Zumwalt, whose own son was dying from cancer caused by chemical
exposures, the DOD created a program to help Vietnam Vets suffering from
Agent Orange induced cancers.