Research shows veterans twice as likely to suffer ALS

Clinical trials hoping to understand connection, find a cure

VIDEO: Melanie Lawson reports on ALS in U.S. military veterans.

Research shows that U.S. military veterans are twice as likely to suffer from ALS as the general public. ALS is a progressive disease, causing muscle weakness or atrophy.

What is causing this alarming connection and what is being done to help those who served our country?

John Hartwell never imagined years after serving his country he might wind up losing the use of his arms, but he’s learning to adapt.

“I am great with a mouse with my toes; actually, it’s really easy,” Hartwell said.

Hartwell, who served in the Air Force from September 1971 to September 1975, relies on his wife, Linda, to feed him but has not lost his sense of humor.

"Gotta be nice to my wife!” he said.

Hartwell said his symptoms started with hand cramps in 2015 and then twitching in his arms. He was eventually diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS.

He’s not sure if there’s a link between his service and ALS, but Dr. Ashok Verma, a neurologist and medical director of the ALS Program at Miami V.A. Medical Center, said the incidence of ALS in war veterans is double that of the general public.

“When people looked into ALS who have served in the Persian Gulf War it was approximately twice as common to the general population,” Dr. Verma said.

That also applied to those who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. But what’s the cause?

“It may be environmental toxicants, for example, exposure to oil wells, burning fumes," Verma said.

Currently, the mean life span of a patient with ALS is three to five years, but some live anywhere from five to 10 years or more.

There are two FDA approved medications for ALS but Verma said the effects are modest. That’s why finding a cure is so urgent.

He said any veteran diagnosed with ALS should contact the VA system and get enrolled.

Hartwell, who is participating in clinical trials, also recommends calling the Paralyzed Veterans of America. They have supplied him with a power wheelchair and a wheelchair accessible van when needed. For more information and help for veterans, go to or