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The link between military veterans and Lou Gehrig's Disease
Commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has been linked to military service.
U.S. military veterans are more likely to develop the debilitating disease than those with no military service, according to the ALS Association.
ALS causes the breakdown of nerves that control muscle movement in the body. There is no known cause for the disease, which leaves patients unable to walk, get out of bed or care for themselves. Most ALS victims die from respiratory failure.
In 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs declared ALS as a service-connected disease. As a result, military veterans who are diagnosed with ALS are eligible for health care and disability benefits.
The specific connection between ALS and military service, however, remains a mystery. Some research suggests that exposure to certain toxins and environmental factors may play a role. Recent studies suggest that Gulf War veterans are more likely to develop neurological disorders similar to ALS.
According to a study by Harvard University, men with any history of military service face a 60 percent greater risk of ALS than those who did not serve.
"This increase appeared to be largely independent of the branch of service and the time period served,” the study noted.
The disease is relatively rare. About 5,600 Americans are diagnosed with ALS each year, with about 30,000 Americans suffering from the disease at any given time, according to the ALS Association.
A caregiver's story
For 18 months after being diagnosed with ALS, Vern Warner's body rapidly deteriorated.
The former U.S. Army serviceman, successful construction company owner and active outdoorsman eventually required round-the-clock care. Confined to a bed in a room of the Auburn house that he built, Vern had lost the ability to feed and clean himself.
Vern's suffering came to an end on June 23, 2010. He was 76.
His wife, Delores Warner, recently self-published a book, "Don't Buy Too Many Green Bananas: Living with ALS." The personal story chronicles her husband's struggle with the disease — and his family's emotional experience as caregivers.
From hospice care and therapy to proper equipment and clothing, Warner's book includes advice to make life easier for home caregivers.
One silver lining in the caregiving journey was the assistance from the Veterans Administration Hospital at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Vern Warner (pictured at right) had served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Korean War, making him eligible for treatment and a disability check.
"I wanted to tell what we learned the hard way as caregivers," said Delores Warner, whose three grown children — Desiree, Derek and Sirena — also shared caregiving duties. "It was a family effort, but we made it."
• To order a copy of "Don't Buy Too Many Green Bananas: Living with ALS," contact Delores Warner at email@example.com or visit www.amazon.com.
• To learn more about ALS, visit www.alsa.org.
• For information on benefits for military veterans, visit www.va.gov/opa/newtova.asp or contact (800) 329-8387, Ext. 71234.