Opening Statement of Hon. Henry E. Brown, Jr., a Representative in Congress from the State of South Carolina
Good morning. Chairman Michaud and Ranking Member Miller I want to thank you for holding this hearing to discuss important issues that have impacted many veterans, within my state of South Carolina and the Nation as a whole, who have served their country during the Gulf War. As a member of this distinguished subcommittee, it is my duty – it is our duty to provide our Nations veterans with access to the best heath care possible. It is our duty, perhaps even a moral responsibility for us here today, on this committee to help those brave veterans who have helped defend our great Nation.
Today, I have the distinguished and dignified honor of introducing someone who answered the call of duty by helping his country when it needed him the most; and today he comes before us and asks for our help. His name is Brigadier General Thomas Mikolajcik. For many years, my personal friend and great American hero, Gen. Mikolajcik, or Gen.Mik as he is known by those closest to him, has been a leader in the Charleston community. First, as the commander of the C-17 wing based at the Charleston Air Force Base, and then as an active contributor to the Charleston Chamber of Commerce’s military relations activities following his retirement in 1996.
While General Mik’s dedication to the Charleston community would be noteworthy in any case, it is even more impressive when one realizes that his focus on the needs of his community come at a time when he is suffering from a debilitating and deadly disease. In 2005, General Mik announced that he had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). While many individuals would have immediately withdrawn under the pressure and impact of ALS, the General used it as an opportunity, and with much resolve and endurance doubled his efforts and dedication. In addition to continuing his commitment to the Charleston community, the General has devoted a great deal of attention to raising awareness within the community of ALS and improving the quality of life for ALS patients and their families. Thanks to his efforts, a new ALS Association chapter was formed in South Carolina, and the only ALS clinic in the state was founded at Charleston’s Medical University of South Carolina. General Mik is truly an inspiration to many throughout the Charleston community, continually thinking of others despite the grave challenges he faces.
Numerous studies have shown that individuals who have served in the military have a high propensity towards being diagnosed with ALS. While the Department of Veterans Affairs has identified ALS as a Gulf War I-related disease, cases abound that show the spread of this disease among veterans is much broader. Indeed, a recent study showed that veterans of all conflicts have a 60 percent higher chance of being diagnosed with ALS than the general population. It has been nearly 70 years since Lou Gehrig made his famous speech and retired from baseball after contracting this horrific disease, and it has been nearly 17 years since the end of the first Gulf War; and yet little has been done about this disease and even less is known about its causes. The work of General Mik has also brought to my attention the growing number of veterans contracting ALS outside of service during Gulf War I. My office is aware of a number of cases in my district from veterans who have developed ALS where the VA has denied their claims because their service was not within the presumptive timeframe of August 2, 1990 through July 31, 1991. We don’t have a good handle on how many non-Gulf War I veterans have contracted ALS, what military-related risk factors exist, or what we can do to decrease the chances of ALS among our veterans and military service men and women. This issue is of special concern as we continue to have troops deployed in OEF/OIF.
The story of General Mik serves as a testament to the need for leadership at the Federal level towards developing a comprehensive ALS research program and a clear VA/DoD policy ensuring that all veterans with service-connected-ALS receive the attention they deserve, regardless of whether or not they served during Gulf War I. We need an agency to step up to the plate and lead federal research into the causes of ALS and how we can better improve its treatment. Most importantly, we need to begin these efforts NOW, before more veterans, including General Mik, succumb to ALS.