In a significant about-face, the Veterans Administration plans to grant benefits to all veterans diagnosed with A-L-S, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. There are a few hundred Iowans living with A-L-S, about 60 of whom die every year.

Sherrie Hanneman, regional spokeswoman for the A-L-S Association, says a large number of those who suffer from A-L-S also served in the military. Until now, Hanneman says most health expenses associated with the illness weren’t covered.

Hanneman says, "If you are a veteran, you are at a 60-percent greater chance of dying from A-L-S than the general population. That’s anyone that’s a veteran. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you served domestically or overseas, whether you were in Vietnam or whether you were in the Korean War or any of the Iraqi wars." She says if a soldier showed symptoms of the illness while on duty or within one year of leaving the service, they were usually granted the benefits, but sometimes the symptoms don’t show up for years.

Hanneman, who’s based in Omaha/Council Bluffs, says, "The V-A benefits were not available for them as a disease that would be service-related. Now that the V-A has said all veterans with A-L-S will receive their medical benefits, that makes a huge difference in the quality of live our veterans will be able to live as they battle this disease." A-L-S attacks quickly and is usually fatal within two to five years, first robbing one’s ability to walk, talk, swallow and eventually breathe on one’s own. It’s a very expensive illness to fight, by one estimate, it costs 200-thousand dollars a year. So what causes A-L-S?

"The Department of Defense is providing significant funding for research to try to answer to that question," Hanneman says. "It’s one of those diseases they that have some theories, they find some genes but no one knows exactly what causes A-L-S. So we don’t know why veterans are at greater risk of dying of A-L-S than the general population." Every day, 15 new A-L-S cases are diagnosed in the U.S. and 15 people die from the illness.