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Veterans at risk for deadly disease

November 11, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Veterans Day is devoted to honoring those who put their lives on the line for their country. Many veterans return from war with emotional and psychological problems, but there's another risk: a devastating disease that appears to occur more in veterans. As an Army sergeant, Ken Patterson was ready and willing to fight for his country.

Now, he's fighting for his life. Ken has ALS, a fatal disease also known as Lou Gehrig's. It attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

"I thought about ending my life," said Patterson.

His speech is affected by the disease. Ken's lost his ability to walk and move. His wife Glenda -- always by his side.

"Without her, I wouldn't be here," said Patterson.

Ken and Glenda want to know why veterans are more than twice as likely to develop ALS. They recently traveled from their home in Florida to Washington D.C. by wheelchair 940 miles total.

"We went five miles per hour," said Patterson.

The goal of the three week journey? To raise awareness about the link between ALS and veterans.

Dr. Lucie Bruijn says there could be many causes. Soldiers are often exposed to polluted air, chemical agents, radioactive waste and high-powered vaccines.

"What I think is happening in the case of the military is there is an environmental exposure and a susceptibility," said ALS Association Senior Vice President of Research and Developmet Lucie Bruijn, Ph.D.

The lifespan of someone diagnosed with ALS is about two to five years. There is just one drug approved to treat the disease, but it only extends life eight to twelve weeks. It costs about $1,000 a month.

"The huge frustration is we don't quite have the answers yet. No, we don't have the therapies," said Dr. Bruijn.

Ken wants answers, but knows he doesn't have much time left. He plans on enjoying every minute with his family.

"Live every day," said Patterson.

In September, the Veterans Benefits Administration recognized ALS as a service-connected disease.

Veterans with the disease will now have access to benefits. It doesn't matter if a veteran served in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines -- all have a higher risk for developing ALS.

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