Deadly disease has new face

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable disease that baseball player Lou Gehrig gave a face and name to, has long been known as non-discriminatory. It can appear in anyone, something Gehrig, who played in 2,130 straight games, so strikingly illustrated.

This July 4 marked the 70th anniversary of Gehrig’s retirement and famous speech. Major League Baseball marked it by having current players read his speech, to raise awareness and money for research.

Sadly, 70 years later, while ALS remains rare, throwing random and indiscriminate punches throughout the population, our military veterans are becoming the face of the disease, developing it in rates higher than the general population.

In September 2008, the VA declared ALS a “presumptively compensable illness” for all veterans with 90 days or more of continuously active service in the military. This provided veterans with the disease access to full benefits, including monthly disability compensation and health care.

The decision was based primarily on a November 2006 report by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine on the association between active-duty service and ALS. The move was applauded, and also criticized for taking too long. The VA said it would work to identify and contact veterans with ALS, including those whose claims for ALS were previously denied, through direct mailings and other outreach programs.

Researchers found that veterans of the Gulf wars have up to twice as much risk of getting the disease. The link, however, also appears to exist for people serving as far back as World War II.

ALS, which typically hits people over age 45, and men more often than women, is developing in younger veterans.

In July, Herald reporter Sharon Salyer wrote about Desert Storm veteran Mike Sexton of Arlington, who participated in a bike-riding fund raiser for the ALS Association in order to help fellow veterans, like his neighbor Darin Nichols, who was diagnosed with the disease two years ago.

What makes ALS particularly devastating, the association notes, “is that as people progressively lose the ability to walk, move their arms, talk and even breathe, their minds remain sharp; acutely aware of the limits ALS has imposed on their lives.”

In his retirement speech, speaking of his fellow players and coaches, the humble Gehrig said: “Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day?”

What gracious words and meaningful actions can we offer our veterans?

For more information on the VA’s disability compensation program, visit www.va.gov or call 800-827-1000. The ALS Association’s Web site is www.alsa.org.

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