Last week, the United States Senate finally passed the PACT Act, legislation that fundamentally changes how the government treats sick veterans, granting benefits to those suffering from cancers and illnesses caused by toxic exposure. It was a hard-fought victory for veterans across our great nation, and I could not be prouder of the role my organization, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, played in ensuring long-abandoned service members will now receive the support they so clearly deserve.
But sometimes, as an advocate for fellow Purple Heart recipients and the veteran community as a whole, it feels like for every arduous step we take forward, we take another one back. My jubilation at the passage of the PACT Act was tempered by the disturbing news that multinational corporation 3M ordered an all-but-defunct subsidiary called Aearo to declare bankruptcy in a cowardly attempt to avoid accountability and limit its financial responsibility to veterans suffering from hearing damage caused by the company’s faulty Combat Arms earplugs.
Earplugs may not seem important to most civilians, but for those serving in the military, they are critical health and safety devices. From 1999 through 2015, 3M sold earplugs to every branch of the armed forces. 3M promised these “revolutionary” dual-ended earplugs would protect the hearing of servicemembers while letting them remain situationally aware, advertising them with the slogan “You Protect Us. We Protect You.” The claimed benefits convinced the military to make them standard issue to troops deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.
There was just one problem: The earplugs did not work, and 3M knew it. Shortly after the company began selling these earplugs to the U.S. armed forces, its own scientists conducted internal testing, which showed the earplugs provided a fraction of the promised protection.
3M should have alerted the military or warned the men and women of our armed forces but instead chose to remain silent, protecting its own profits over our troops. Not until 16 years later, when documents revealing 3M’s deception became public, did the company stop selling these dangerously defective earplugs. It later settled with the U.S. Department of Justice over this conduct.
The results of 3M’s inaction were nothing short of catastrophic. Over 230,000 soldiers filed lawsuits against 3M for the permanent hearing damage they suffered. And, after hearing all the facts, juries repeatedly found 3M liable, entering verdicts in favor of 13 out of 19 plaintiffs and awarding almost $300 million in damages.
Instead of treating veterans honorably, 3M is now using the bankruptcy system to avoid further accountability. 3M pushed all the earplug lawsuits into an old subsidiary, filed for bankruptcy, and left it with a tiny trust worth less than $5,000 per veteran to try and make the problem go away. Meanwhile, the main 3M company — a $100B corporation flush with cash for stock buybacks and dividends — gets to continue operating unscathed and no longer has to answer in court for how it treated U.S. soldiers.
In a press release announcing this sham, 3M CEO Mike Roman said, “We have great respect for the brave men and women who protect us.” On the company’s second quarter earnings call, he claimed, “We want to do right by veterans.” Yet actions speak louder than words, and the actions taken by Roman and the rest of 3M’s leadership have completely undermined the company’s professed sentiment.
3M desperately wants this issue to be about anything other than veterans suffering lifelong injuries because it placed profits over patriotism. This bad faith bankruptcy is an affront to those who served our country, and we can’t let 3M get away with it.
For many veterans, their hearing loss and tinnitus exacerbates other psychological issues, such as insomnia, social isolation, depression and anxiety. Most significantly for combat-wounded veterans, like the brave men and women who make up my organization, hearing damage has a substantial knock-on effect with post-traumatic stress disorder — an epidemic amongst those who fought in war over the past 20 years and were forced to use earplugs that put them in harm’s way.
As a 22-year Army veteran, I can say that a soldier’s life is animated by two precepts: service and sacrifice. We swear to serve our country and must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in its defense. This situation makes me ask myself: how can 3M — a company that so completely failed to protect our troops while we sacrificed everything for America — expect our legal system to protect them and let them get away by sacrificing so little?
Retired Army Capt. James McCormick is the national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He served 22 years in the Army and Army Reserve and completed tours of duty in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. McCormick is a Silver Star recipient, three-time Bronze Star recipient and three-time Purple Heart recipient.
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