Many military health risks are universal. For instance, trauma injuries, blast-related injuries and PTSD can affect members from any branch of service, from any tour. However, many other conditions correspond with a specific period of service or a specific branch of service.
These unique health hazards are just as important to consider as shrapnel wounds or other universal risks. In fact, they may be more important – considering that many tend to develop years after service, rather than during. Below, we outline the most common risks faced by veterans of major wartime periods.
World War II (1939-1945)
The VA refers to a select group of World War II veterans as “Atomic Veterans.” This group includes prisoners of war, nuclear weapons testers and those who were stationed in Hiroshima or Nagasaki between August 1925 and July 1946. Because of their involvement with radiation risk activity, these World War II veterans may be at risk for many cancers, including:
- Brain Cancer
- Breast Cancer
- Ovarian Cancer
- Intestinal Cancer
- Stomach Cancer
- Kidney Cancer
- Multiple Myeloma
Mustard gas was another common exposure hazard that placed World War II veterans at risk for severe complications. More than 64,000 veterans endured testing to determine the risks of the chemical, and may now be experiencing the following long-term issues:
- Skin burning and scarring (especially from exposure to the liquid form)
- Chronic respiratory diseases or infections
World War II veterans also served during a time when the United States mandated asbestos use in its ships. These veterans – especially those who served in the Navy – may now be facing malignant mesothelioma or similar conditions from the exposure.
Vietnam War (1959-1975)
Used exclusively during the Vietnam War, Agent Orange is perhaps the most widely known health risk in the military history. Among other skin conditions and respiratory conditions, veterans exposed to this toxic herbicide may experience:
- AL Amyloidosis
- Hodgkin’s Disease
- Ischemic Heart Disease
- Peripheral Neuropathy
- Lung Cancer
- Soft Tissue Sarcomas
While exposure most commonly occurred in Vietnam or on Vietnamese naval boats, it also occurred on Coast Guard ships, C123-planes and in military storage units.
Vietnam War veterans also make up a high percentage of hepatitis C victims. One study at the Memphis VA Medical Center found that Vietnam veterans accounted for more than 68 percent of the center’s hep-C cases.
Gulf War (1990-1991)
Aside from war injuries, infectious diseases were the greatest health threat to Gulf War veterans. Malaria, salmonella and the West Nile virus were common. Other, lesser-known infections associated with Gulf War service include:
- Mycobacterium Tuberculosis
- Visceral Leishmaniasis
- Campylobacter Jejuni
Most of these illnesses developed within one year of service, so few Gulf War veterans would be noticing symptoms now. They may, however, experience symptoms that are connected to their service, but not a specific disease. These range from headaches, neurological issues and respiratory illnesses, to fatigue and sleep disorders. If these symptoms persist for six months or more, the VA considers them service-connected conditions.
Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003+)
- Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans faced the following unique health hazards:
- Chromium contamination (From Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility, circa 2003)
- Sulfur dioxide inhalation (From the sulfur fire at Mishraq State Sulfur Mine, circa 2003)
- Acinetobacter Baumannii infections
- Irritation or respiratory infections (From burn pit smoke)
Veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn were also at risk for the infectious diseases associated with the Gulf War. The VA offers a similar comprehensive screening for both groups of veterans, due to the overlap in health complications.
Faith Franz is a writer for The Mesothelioma Center. She likes to spread the word about the benefits of alternative medicine.
United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Iraq War Exposures. Retrieved from http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/wars-operations/iraq-war.asp
United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Vietnam War Exposures. Retrieved from http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/wars-operations/vietnam-war.asp
Waters, B. (2003). HCV Advocate. Hepetitis C in Vietnam Era Veterans. Retrieved from http://www.hcvadvocate.org/hcsp/articles/vietvet.html
United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs. World War II Exposures. Retrieved from http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/wars-operations/ww2.asp
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Facts About Sulfur Mustard. Retrieved from http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/sulfurmustard/basics/facts.asp
United States Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Gulf War Exposures. Retrieved from http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/gulfwar/hazardous_exposures.asp