Many U.S. military veterans like retired Air Force Technical Sergeant David Masters of Omaha, Neb. have bravely fought for their country only to return home to wage another battle against Lou Gehrig’s Disease. No one knows why, but veterans are twice as likely to develop this fatal disease, clinically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Lou Gehrig’s Disease cut Masters’ military career short when he was just 32. Following a deployment in Saudi Arabia, Masters first began experiencing unusual muscle weakness in his right arm during a deployment in Kuwait.
“This was devastating for someone who was an amateur body builder, handpicked physical training leader, and overall health and fitness enthusiast,” recalls Masters.
There is no known cure and just one drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which only modestly extends survival.
“ALS is a frightening and fatal disease that slowly paralyzes the body, robbing it of its ability to walk, speak, swallow and breathe, while the mind remains sharp and alert,” says Jane H. Gilbert, president and CEO of The ALS Association – the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting Lou Gehrig’s disease on every front.
“Above all, veterans need to know that they do not have to battle ALS alone,” says Gilbert. “While we are working tirelessly to find a cure and answers for our men and women in uniform, the fact remains that veterans and their families too often are not aware of the abundance of aid and support that is available to them.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes ALS as a service-connected disease and provides financial and medical support to those with at least 90 continuous days of military service. Veterans with questions concerning their service benefits are encouraged to visit www.alsa.org/als-care/veterans/faqs-new-veterans.html.
Services sometimes vary, but most chapters of The ALS Association loan a range of medical equipment to people with ALS, including lift devices, wheelchairs and digital communication tools. In addition, ALS Association chapters lead support groups and offer respite programs for family caregivers. A listing of local chapters can be found at www.alsa.org/community/chapters/.
Masters now has three young children and relies more and more on his wife for his daily care. He struggles to cope with his loss of freedom and knowing that one day he will no longer be able to hug his children or to speak the words, “I love you” to his family.
Like so many other veterans living with ALS, Masters is holding onto hope for a cure and to one day know why he and his fellow service members of all generations must bear this health burden. Regardless of the uniform they wear and whether they served during a time of war or peace, simply being a veteran is a known risk factor for developing ALS.
“One day, the promise of research will prevail and ALS will no longer be among the list of sacrifices our military veterans will be forced to face,” says Gilbert. “Until then, we are working to do everything possible to ease the burden of ALS for America’s military families.”