Alzheimer’s Association’s Focus On Veterans Brings Issue of Traumatic Brain Injuries to the Forefront

WV Press Release Sharing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — James “Jim” Leer enlisted in the United States Navy and was off to boot camp in 1965, joining the military at age 20.

A radioman on the USS Maddox, he served during the Vietnam War, where he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). He left the Navy after four years of service. “I had no recollection of the last six months I was in,” Leer said. He said the impact of the TBI affected other parts of his memory. But he kept silent after he transitioned back to civilian life because he was looking for a job. “You just don’t tell somebody about it,” Leer said.

Today at age 76, Leer has Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. He was diagnosed at age 54 with early-onset Alzheimer’s. “It’s not something that we expected from the time he was in the service,” said his wife Donna Leer. “We weren’t forewarned that his service was going to develop into this, so you accept what has developed and you educate yourself,” she said.

In West Virginia, 39,000 people ages 65 and older, live with Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive, fatal brain disease that kills nerve cells and tissues in the brain, affecting an individual’s ability to remember, think, plan, speak, walk. Nationwide, veterans with TBI or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have a 60 percent greater chance of developing dementia and the Alzheimer’s Association is working to find ways to provide more help to veterans with dementia.

Amy Boehm, Alzheimer’s Association Health Systems Director for West Virginia, said, “As the veteran population in West Virginia continues to grow, the demand for high-quality senior care increases. The Alzheimer’s Association is excited and ready to support VA Medical Centers to improve the clinical pathway for patients to receive an early diagnosis for dementia and quality care for the veteran and caregiver after a diagnosis.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Research & Development, the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) reported nearly 414,000 TBIs among U.S. service members worldwide between 2000 and late 2019. In addition, according to the data, more than 185,000 veterans who use the VA for their health care have been diagnosed with at least one TBI.  According to the report, traumatic brain injury and its associated medical conditions are a significant cause of disability outside of military settings.

In West Virginia, according to the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance, veterans make up about 10 percent of the state’s population. About 35 percent of those veterans served during the Vietnam War.

Leer, who has experienced PTSD also, said at the time doctors were performing tests before his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, “they did a PET scan of my brain and it was really in bad shape.” At that time, he said he was working as a master control engineer at a television station. “I was constantly making notes. I had notes all over the place,” he said.

After he got his diagnosis, Leer said he went on the internet, looked up memory problems and found the Alzheimer’s Association. “They told me what steps to follow at work. I had to let my employer know the very next business day I had finally gotten the diagnosis,” Leer said.

Since then, he and his wife have been advocates for the Alzheimer’s Association – meeting with people in Congress and state legislators about the need for additional support for those with the disease. “We don’t feel ashamed to mention he has a diagnosis, it’s not anything we did,” Mrs. Leer said.