LEVITTOWN, Pa. (CBS) — Memorial Day has a special meaning for veterans. Many live with disabilities related to their service, both mental and physical.
They also face an increased risk for getting a deadly disease. All veterans have an increased risk for ALS — Lou Gehrig’s Disease — no matter where they served or when. It’s a mystery and especially troubling for one Air Force family in Bucks County.
“This flag is incredibly meaningful to me,” Jeanne Jennings, a veteran with ALS, said.
A citation to Jennings says the flag was flown over Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom — a gift from her son, Dave, who is an Air Force veteran like his mom.
“I’m extremely proud to have served in the Air Force,” Jennings said.
She started out in 1977 as a jet engine mechanic and ended up in the protocol office. Jennings’ brother and her ex-husband were also in the Air Force. The family is filled with people who’ve served in the military. And now Jennings is paying the ultimate price.
“I noticed I had trouble going up stairs and lifting things and it gradually got harder,” Jennings said.
Jennings was diagnosed with ALS last year. It’s a fatal neuro-degenerative disease.
Part of her therapy is a vibrating vest. Jennings is among the growing number of veterans with ALS.
“We vets are two to three times more likely to get this disease. Who knows why? No one seems to have an answer for that,” Jennings said.
New research confirms that ALS is connected to military service. No one knows why. It strikes vets in all branches, whether they served during peacetime or in war.
“My biggest concern is my son and his friends,” Jennings said.
Jennings, who’s confined to a wheelchair, says she’s relieved that ALS is now a service-connected disease. The VA covers the care.
For Jennings and her family, Memorial Day has special meaning.
“Memorial Day is more than just mourning the dead for me. It’s also mourning what could have been for so many people that just didn’t come back or left emotional parts of themselves places,” Jennings said.
She worries for her fellow vets about all the non-combat risks they face. Jennings says she has no regrets about her service in the Air Force.
“I’ve had a great life and a lot of that was thanks to the Air Force. Everyone is going to die at some point. I have an expiration date but so do you, it doesn’t bother me,” Jennings said.
She’s a remarkably positive person. Jennings says she now has a new appreciation for life and has grown closer to her three children. They all have a tattoo that says “heartstrings never break.”
The family is together for Memorial Day and are also celebrating Jennings’ birthday. That’s coming up on Wednesday.
In 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs established ALS as a service connected disease. Since then, the average number of veterans living with ALS increased by 30%.