Few men in the history of the Navy have had such a positive impact upon that service as has as Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. Well-loved and respected, he is remembered as a trailblazer who reformed the Navy and a champion of the men and women who served our country. Tragically, his very service to our Nation also resulted in his death – not from battle, but from exposure to asbestos. Like so many members of the Navy who served from World War II through the Vietnam war, Admiral Zumwalt developed mesothelioma from his exposure to asbestos aboard US Navy ships. Baron & Budd is honored to have represented his family in their case against the companies responsible for his death.
Admiral Zumwalt was the youngest Chief of Naval Operations in history when, at the age of 49, he took the helm of the U.S. Navy in 1970. He is widely credited for transforming the Navy during his four years as its leader into an institution that provided equal opportunity for all, including women, racial minorities, and the common sailor. His famous directives, nicknamed “Z-grams,” effected wide-ranging reforms of outmoded policies and procedures, tackled the issue of drug abuse, and created mentoring programs for Navy wives.
Prior to becoming CNO, Admiral Zumwalt served as the Commander of US Naval Forces Vietnam (COMNAVFORV) from 1968 to 1970. During his command, he ordered the spraying of Agent Orange in the Mekong Delta to protect Navy boats from ambush. Before ordering the use of agent orange, he had consulted its manufacturers about potential hazards to those exposed and was assured by them it was safe. His eldest son commanded one of the boats patrolling the river.
Agent Orange, unfortunately, proved fatal to many U.S. Military personnel – including Admiral Zumwalt’s son, Lt. Elmo Zumwalt III, who died of leukemia in 1988 at the age of 42. Driven by his son’s cancer and death, the Admiral became a tireless advocate for the health and safety of servicemen and women. Robert O. Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, remarked that no one has done more to face the consequences of Agent Orange and provide benefits to sick veterans than Admiral Zumwalt. In 1997 – just two years before he was diagnosed with mesothelioma – the Admiral urged the United States to sign a treaty banning chemical weapons. In testimony before Congress, he said: “Every man and woman who puts on a U.S. military uniform face possible injury or death in the national interest. They don’t complain; risk is part of their job description. But it is also part of the job description of every U.S. senator to see that this risk not be increased unnecessarily.”
]In July 1999, the 78-year-old Admiral Zumwalt placed first in his age division in a race to raise funds for a cancer research foundation he supported. But shortness of breath after the race sent him to the doctor. The diagnosis: mesothelioma. In October of that year, his left lung was removed, and by the end of 1999, the athletic, vibrant man of just a few months prior was bedridden and unable to speak. Admiral Zumwalt passed away on January 2, 2000.
Baron & Budd is honored to have represented Admiral Zumwalt’s family in their personal injury case against asbestos manufacturers. “One of the things that struck me when representing the Zumwalt family was that every sailor we spoke to during the lawsuit had the same admiration for Admiral Zumwalt,” says Baron & Budd attorney Ben DuBose. “Each sailor spoke fondly about how Zumwalt was a sailor’s Admiral, that he was always willing to roll-up his sleeves, to understand their work, and to push for innovation and change. Those sailors had immense respect for Admiral Zumwalt. It’s reassuring to know our country has such leaders and it was an honor to represent the Zumwalt family.”
Admiral Zumwalt will long be remembered for his commitment to effecting positive change to improve the lives and safety of the members of our Armed Services. His courage and dedication to protecting the health of sailors was unrelenting, even in the final months of his life – a life cut short by asbestos.