by Mallory Hoff
Huntsville, AL- A local veteran suffering from ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” now finds himself fighting for the medical care he was promised. Lee Persing is a veteran living with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as ALS. He served in the Air Force for almost 20 years as a gunner on B-52’s during the first Gulf War.
Persing was one of the first to enter Baghdad in 1991. Doctors say he has service-related ALS. As he fights the disease, he is caught up in yet another battle. This fight, however, is against the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Persing says the VA is not moving as fast as his disease.
“I just want the benefits that I was owed,” Persing said, “Not what I deserved, not what I require. What I’m owed. Because I made a promise to the government,” he said, “and I held up my end of the bargain.”
Still, Persing has continually struggled with the VA to get the treatment he needs, and many veterans around the country are fighting the same disease. In 2005, a study was released suggesting war veterans are significantly more likely to develop ALS than civilians.
Armed with this information and the knowledge that the disease progresses very quickly, President George W. Bush signed a bill mandating the VA to process ALS claims from veterans immediately.
Persing says the VA has failed to follow that law.
“My beef isn’t with the military, or with the medical side of the VA; it’s the Claims Processing that the VA doesn’t do in a timely manner,” said Persing.
Persing has often had to wait months for responses to claims with VA. With a degenerative disease that progresses so quickly, however, time is precious.
“I said I’ve had enough, I’m tired of waiting,” Persing said, “Something needs to be done. After waiting 13 months for adoptive housing claim to be approved, 8 months for a handicapped van to be approved…I sent a letter to the President.”
His letter, which was also sent to the secretary of the Veterans Affairs, outlined his struggle. It presented a documented timeline of his interactions with the VA. Still, Persing says the response was disheartening and delayed.
“Four months later I got a response,” Persing said, “‘Thank you for your concerns, however, we’re trying to provide health care for an entire nation.'”
According to his wife, Robin, this was a slap in the face. Persing met Robin five years into his service and says she helps him get through all the struggles caused by his disease and his ongoing strife with the VA.
“They put millions of dollars into a person to build them and create them, educate and train them,” Robin said.
Once these individuals are retired or separated from the military, however, Robin says it feels as though they are virtually forgotten.
“Their expiration date is done,” She said, “They want a new model. Well, you still have a person who gave their life for their country.”
For Persing, who was diagnosed six years ago, civilian life with his wife and nine year old son, Brennan, becomes more difficult with each day.
“It started with losing my legs, and then losing my arms, and then torso, and now speech,” said Persing of the progression of his disease, “And the next thing is my breath.”
Acknowledging the reality that in a matter of months, Lee will be on a ventilator, the Persing family wrote the VA requesting a home generator in case of a power outage.
“I received the response, ‘We only give those to people on ventilators or respirators,'” Persings said, “I said, ‘I have ALS. I will require one and I will need a back up generator.'”
After the recent storms, the Persings purchased a home generator out of pocket. Determined not to give up on his pending Home Modification Grant, Persing forwarded his letter to Congressman Mo Brooks.
When he did not get a response, WAAY 31 reached out to the Congressman. That same day, a case worker from Brooks’ office called Persing.
“Let me focus on veterans for a moment,” Brooks told WAAY 31, “They should have our highest priority. We do our utmost to try to prod the federal government agency into giving us a higher priority, but that’s the best we can do, we’re not the decision makers.”
Miraculously, on the same day that the case worker called Persing, one and half years after he submitted his initial request, Persing’s claim for a Home Modification Grant was approved by the VA. It was certainly a step towards victory for a veteran determined to fight on behalf of all those who have served their country.
“It almost comes across as a perception that if they just bolstered on long enough that we’d just give up,” Persing said of the VA, “But that’s not it. I’m a fighter.”