Almost 12 years ago to the day, in the town of Abu Sarnak, Iraq, then-32-year-old Staff Sargent Travis W. Atkins made an instantaneous decision that would save the lives of three other American soldiers.
On a roadside, his combat team was searching insurgent fighters for weapons. Suddenly, one of the men engaged Atkins in hand-to-hand combat. As they struggled, he discovered the man was wearing a suicide vest and trying to detonate it.
Atkins fought but could not prevent the man from triggering the vest. Without hesitation, he tackled the suicide bomber to the ground and wrapped him in a bear hug, shielding his companions from the explosion that took Atkins’s life.
In March 2019, Atkins was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration. He is the first soldier to receive the award in 2019, and at the ceremony, General James C. McConville, the Army’s vice chief of staff, spoke about Atkins’s selfless heroism:
“[Atkins] thought only of the lives of his men . . . He did what he knew had to be done and he sacrificed himself, his dreams, his goals, his aspirations, and his future so others could fulfill theirs.”
On Memorial Day, Americans come together to pay tribute to those who give their lives in the line of duty. Atkins embodied that selfless spirit. He enlisted in 2000, deployed to Iraq at the start of the invasion in 2003, and redeployed in 2006 on the eve of the surge.
He never questioned his responsibility to his fellow Americans, and when the time came, he gave up everything to save others. Atkins leaves behind a son and parents, who received the medal in his stead at the ceremony held in his honor.
A Respect That Endures Changing Times
Memorial Day has an American origin that dates back to the Civil War, but it is also rooted in traditions of respect for fallen warriors that date back millennia. Atkins, whose story will inspire countless others, is just one of the tens of thousands of soldiers we honor on Memorial Day.
One of the earliest American memorial observances for departed soldiers came three weeks after the end of the Civil War in Charleston, South Carolina. There, a racetrack had become a temporary camp for Union prisoners of war. In the final weeks of the war, conditions got so bad that more than 250 prisoners died. After their deaths, they were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstands.
On May 1, 1865, a procession made up of newly freed slaves, U.S. Colored Troops, missionaries and others entered the campground. They sang hymns and songs in honor of the prisoners, who had been re-buried with dignity in a new cemetery.
In time, the country healed, and it continues to evolve today. The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, still stands, overlooking the grounds that were once the racetrack. But now, students of all colors graduate as cadets there. This year, the Citadel graduated its first female regimental commander in its 176-year history.
The Unseen Burden of Too Many Soldiers
Although the U.S. military is always adapting to changing circumstances, progress does not follow a perfect route. Some decisions, made with the best of intentions, turn out to be fatal.
During the 20th century, before the risks were known, the armed forces often made use of asbestos, a plentiful, naturally occurring fibrous mineral. Because it was lightweight, durable and heat-resistant, asbestos was used extensively as an insulator in products like brake pads and gaskets, as well as in construction materials, which surrounded service members.
Almost every ship the Navy built before the 1980s contained asbestos. Sprayed as an insulator on pipes and wiring, asbestos’s low weight allowed ships to take on more supplies and ammunition while still being fire-proof. But it came at a terrible price. As the asbestos in ships, aircraft brakes and buildings deteriorated, the tiny asbestos fibers took to the air.
When someone is exposed to asbestos — most often through the inhalation of fibers — they have a lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma, an incurable cancer. Although asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, it can take decades before symptoms present themselves. Even then, mesothelioma symptoms may be mistaken for the common cold.
For decades, the men and women of the U.S. military were at risk of inhaling the toxic fibers. This is why American veterans account for one third of all mesothelioma cases in the United States.
A cancer diagnosis is not something anyone deserves, especially someone selfless enough to put their life on the line in service of their country. For those affected, there is help. Find out more about the resources available for veterans who have been diagnosed with mesothelioma.
Today, as we respect and honor those like Staff Sargent Atkins who selflessly gave their lives so that others might live freely, let us protect the country they fought for. Prevent more asbestos from invading America’s shores and address the millions of tons that still pose a threat. As Memorial Day approaches, let’s remember to keep this land clean and free of a toxin that kills 40,000 Americans each year.
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