Military Heroes Fight ALS

October 31, 2013

“Right away after my diagnosis, I decided to do all I could to beat this thing,” writes Dave Ihde. “First you cry, then you decide to fight or sit around and wait to die. I decided to fight.” Ihde, 58, is a United States Air Force veteran who was diagnosed with ALS in November 2012. His response to his ALS diagnosis echoes the responses of many veterans who are facing the disease just as bravely as they faced the dangers of military service.

Veterans are approximately twice as likely to die from ALS as the general population. The reason for the disparity is unknown.

Since his diagnosis, Ihde – a self-described “jack-of-all-trades” who once provided security to B-52s loaded with nuclear warheads and later enjoyed a long career as a photographer – has lost the ability to speak.  He writes that even typing has become difficult for him. As a professional photographer, Ihde knows the power of communication and acutely feels the limits that ALS has placed on his ability to communicate. Still, he writes, “I try to spread positivity throughout to other PALS [Persons with ALS] through my writings and photos. I spread awareness to anybody who is interested because I don’t hide the disease, I flaunt it. I got this [disease]: how can you help me cure it?”

Chris Wickmark, a fellow Air Force veteran, takes a similar approach to life with ALS. “I say to my friends, ‘I’m going to tell you what I have, but you cannot feel sorry for me,’” she says. “I don’t feel bad for myself.” Wickmark, 55, lives in Idaho, where she runs a farm. Affectionately known as the “Idaho Disco Queen,” because of her love for disco music and dance, she recently danced onstage with her favorite band, The Trammps, as they played their hit “Disco Inferno (Burn Baby Burn)” during a benefit for Vietnam War veterans.

Don Farrell, 53, was diagnosed with ALS in August 2011. An Air Force veteran, Farrell says that people living with ALS need to focus on the positive, not dwell on negativity. He stresses the need for people to keep ahead of the disease by planning ahead and encourages veterans to use the resources available to them through the Veterans Administration (VA).

The devastating and progressive physical effects of ALS are experienced in many ways. Farrell, for example, must be fed via feeding tube because his swallowing muscles have been affected by the disease, and Ihde describes how he has had to give up almost everything he loves doing:

“My work, golf, playing guitar, and singing. Dancing with my wife.” He is learning side lap steel guitar because he can no longer play chords. “You have to adapt,” he adds.

Ihde, Farrell, Wickmark and other veterans living with ALS work to spread awareness about ALS every day. Ihde has worked with local, state, and federal government officials to express the need for continuous funding of programs for research, treatment, and services for people living with the disease. He recently advocated for – and helped win – funding in Pennsylvania, where he lives. He and Farrell are assisting the U.S. Department of Defense with research into ALS.

For her part, Wickmark hopes that by raising awareness about ALS, she can help achieve two main goals: first, let people know about the early symptoms of ALS; and second, raise funds for research into treatments to slow the progression of ALS or cure the disease altogether.

All three veterans encourage people diagnosed with ALS to take advantage of the support and resources offered by The ALS Association. The ALS Association is actively engaged in research to provide answers, new treatments, and one day a cure for all people living with ALS. “Our military veterans dedicated their lives to defending us,” said Jane H. Gilbert, President and CEO of The ALS Association. “We need to continue to fight for them, just as they fought for us.”

The ALS Association encourages the public to visit the Wall of Honor at www.alsa.org/advocacy/veterans to see the faces of our military heroes, read about their service, and learn about their fight against ALS. Veterans and their families are also encouraged to visit the site and share their stories.

To learn more about what you can do to join the fight against ALS, visit the “Advocate” section of The ALS Association website at www.alsa.org/advocacy.

Read the press release.

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