Raising awareness to help veterans

By Robin Hartman

A few weeks ago, studies found that NFL players are at greater risk of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Media ran stories about the news and rightfully so. But with Veterans Day approaching on Nov. 11, how many of us know that a much, much larger segment of our population — military veterans — also is at greater risk of Lou Gehrig’s Disease?

Studies have shown that military veterans are about twice as likely to die from ALS as the general public. It does not matter when or where they served in the military — home or abroad, during a time of peace or war, from World War I to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, for these heroes and everyone else in the world who is living with ALS, there is no treatment. There is no cure. They will die from the disease in an average of just two to five years.

The local ALS Association Evergreen Chapter currently serves 61 veterans with ALS. One of those is Vaughn Axling of Tacoma. While in the Army, Vaughn was an M-1 Abrams hull mechanic with rank of E-4. He served in Dessert Storm/Dessert Shield in 1990; he was attached to the 3rd Armored Division and was honorably discharged in 1991 when the military downsized.

In 2010, he was diagnosed with ALS. Vaughn is no longer able to work as an auto tech, as his arms and hands lack the strength.

Daily activities are a struggle for Vaughn. Everything takes longer, he struggles to tie his shoes, shave, button his pants, etc. He has even had to give up the hobby he has had since childhood, model railroading. His hands simply are not coordinated enough to perform the detail work that is required for the hobby. But Vaughn, being one of the most positive and resilient people you could ever meet, took it in stride and said that’s OK, now I’ll have more room to collect Hot Wheels.

We do not know what causes ALS in veterans or NFL players. Is it head trauma? Excessive physical activity? Those are potential risk factors.

But we do know that raising awareness of the risk faced by our veterans not only can let these heroes know about the significant VA benefits that are available, but also help us to find the cause treatment and cure for this horrific disease.

Just as the media published stories about the greater risk faced by NFL players, so too should they report the risks faced by our military heroes who have fought for and defended our nation. (See Herald article, “Ride for a reason: Veteran gets on his bike for ALS fundraiser” and editorial, “Deadly disease has new face.”)

I encourage your readers to visit the Wall of Honor at www.alsa.org.

There, people can read the stories and see the faces of hundreds of veterans living with ALS and those who already have been lost to the disease. There, they can see that ALS does not simply strike the stars we watch on TV every Sunday, but also our family members, friends and neighbors who have served in the military — our heroes.

The ALS Association Evergreen Chapter serves Veterans and others living with ALS locally. They can be contacted at