Book aims to help veterans suffering from 'silent killer'

Even Bill Burton is surprised by the impact his self-published book on asbestos poisoning has had on the lives of so many veterans.

Asbestosis was simply a word in a medical dictionary 12 years ago when Burton, an 83-year-old Columbus native, learned he had contacted the disease while serving in the Navy during World War II.

Now, lawyers ask repeatedly during commercials in the noon news if those in the audience with asbestosis have considered suing. And, if so, it only requires one call. That’s all.

Burton, who now lives in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, after retiring from a career with Coca-Cola, isn’t in the litigation business.

In fact, he’s pumped more money into researching, writing and distributing “Asbestos: The Silent Killer of Navy Veterans” than he will ever make in sales of the book.

“I certainly didn’t do it for the money,” said Burton Thursday via telephone from his home. “I just thought others could learn from what I had experienced.”

Sure, much of the almost 600-page book is a technical explanation of the disease and its possible causes and the difficulty in diagnosing. Former Columbus High buddy Dr. Denton Johnson provided much of the medical expertise.

As tragic as asbestosis might be, almost as painful is the journey through the Veterans Administration for those trying to file service-connected disability claims because of the disease.

“Since the book was first published in 2001,” he said, “I’ve probably been contacted by hundreds of people who want to know more about asbestosis and its related illnesses. Most of all they want help in navigating the VA maze.”

The third edition of Burton’s book just rolled off the press.

“Every single book from the first two printings are gone,” he said. “I ordered another 600 and I hope to make them available through Amazon. I expect them to go pretty fast.”

The book sells for $29.99, plus shipping and handling. Those interested may order a copy of the book by calling Burton at (770) 381-5395.

Burton, who has six children, 23 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, completed his original manuscript a few months before the terror of Sept. 11, 2001.

It was not until 1996 that Burton, who served with the Navy’s Armed Guard, learned of the extent asbestos was used on the ships he was assigned to: troop transports, tankers and supply ships.

“Just about any ship built before 1985 contained asbestos,” he said.

Used as fire retardant and insulation, asbestos was widespread. “We breathed the stuff every day. It was in the air and in our food, but we had no idea at the time it could kill us,” Burton said.

His primary concern was for those men who had suffered from exposure to asbestos to receive fair compensation and medical treatment from the VA.

It bothers him that it is too late for thousands of former sailors to file VA claims.

“Sadly, many of those who inhaled asbestos fibers during World War II, as I did, are gone. So many have died . . . and they really never knew what they had. But the Navy didn’t eliminate asbestos on its ships until 1985. So thousands more have probably been exposed.”

Burton’s book is an atlas for soldiers and sailors who have tried to travel through the VA maze, in search of what they feel is just compensation for injuries or illnesses they’ve suffered while on active duty.

Burton had hoped the VA would adjudicate his claim for disability compensation before the first publication of the book.

“I wanted it to run as the final chapter,” he said, an uplifting finish to a mighty struggle for justice.

But he didn’t receive word that his effort to receive compensation for service-connected asbestosis had been approved before the book was printed.

That’s why he had to add a special concluding chapter to the latest publication.

“I’ll be getting $824 a month from the government for as long as I live,” he laughed. “I just hope I get back enough to make up for the money I spent on the book.”

Burton spent several thousand dollars to get the book published by Quill, a Columbus printing company, knowing full well that sales will never make up for his investment.

While the focus is on asbestosis, Burton doesn’t limit the discussion to that.

“Those suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and the mysterious Gulf War syndrome will benefit from the book. I’m convinced a lot of old soldiers and sailors have no idea how to file claims, or even if they are eligible for help.

“But I tell you,” he said, raising his voice, “you can fight City Hall.”

Burton is helping five people now stake claims inside the halls of the Atlanta VA. He wishes he could help more.

“But maybe my book can help those still alive, and the younger soldiers from more recent wars, how to deal with the VA.”