Long after combat, a Marine struggled with service-related disease
- Category: Local News
- Published: 25 May 2023
By Leah Small
The Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO
This is the first episode of Virginia Voices, a production of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism and supported by Virginia Humanities. Listen to the podcast here and subscripe for future episodes.
Deborah Skeldon met her husband, Patrick, on a blind date in Hawaii in 1980. She was a civilian, recently divorced. He was a Marine Corps fighter pilot, a Vietnam veteran based at Kaneohe Air Station.
The two forged an immediate bond – one that would remain unbroken for decades through the devastating diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, attributed to his military service.
Skeldon flew more than 280 combat missions during two tours in Vietnam. He retired as a lieutenant colonel after 23 years of service, including training dozens of Marine and Navy pilots.
Years later, after a career as a commercial pilot, Sheldon was diagnosed with ALS. The deadly neurological condition attacks neurons needed for muscle movement, leading to severe paralysis and usually death within 2 to 3 years.
For unknown reasons, military veterans are twice as likely to develop ALS than the general population. In 2008, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that all veterans with ALS, who served for at least 90 days, were eligible for full disability benefits.
Debrah Skeldon, 71, lives in Springfield, Va. and is a member of Gold Star Spouses of the United States. She remembered her Marine and the life they shared.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
(Pat) loved the country. His father was Air Force. His brother was Army and he had an uncle who was an Army general. A lot of military in the family. So it seemed like the best way to serve his country.
(He) never did (talk about his two tours in Vietnam). It had been a while, so it wasn't current news. I met him in 1980. It had been a number of years (since the war). He just didn't talk about work.
I used to tell people we met on a blind date, and I wore the blindfold. I was living in Hawaii. He had just come to Hawaii. He was stationed at Kaneohe Air Station and a mutual friend (I was divorced) got us together. We were going to dinner. He was incredibly handsome, he was funny and he was very nervous. By the end of the evening, he had settled down.
I didn't wanna be with anybody else. He treated me very well. His family welcomed me. You just know. I am a firm believer that you don't find ‘The One’ until you stop looking. And that's what happened.
The people that served with him loved him. He had an amazing sense of humor. He once did a full inspection on the tarmac of his squadron with a Groucho Marx mask on. You know, you can't laugh or lose attention. He was testing them.
I've had guys that were in the squadron with him who said that Pat was responsible for the man he is today. It's just a beautiful tribute.
They just really appreciated his humor and how he supported them.
He lived to fly. The reason that he retired (from the Marines) when he did was because he was flying a desk and he really wanted to fly an airplane. So he retired from duty at the Pentagon.
He wanted airtime. He flew for Comair after his (military) retirement, and then Delta Airlines.
I've heard, of course, ALS is twice as likely for those who served in the military, but I've heard that there's a gene that all of us have. It just depends on whether it's turned on or not. So, something in the military service turned that gene on.
Slurred speech is often one of the early signs of ALS. People are accused of being drunk. And that's what somebody thought when they reported him because his speech was slurred and he tripped going off a curve. It was really upsetting to him.
He went to see the chief pilot and he took his union rep with him. They made him go see the company doctor who had just learned about ALS. That was the week before he would've actually retired. They put him on medical leave for a week until he could retire.
He was upset. He loved to fly and he couldn't fly anymore.
His diagnosis was in 2004. I first applied for disability in 2005. I got in touch with the VA, and they said, Oh, we were so focused on Hurricane Katrina that year, your application is probably lost.
I applied again and it was denied because it wasn't a service connected (disability) at that time. I appealed it. I spent a lot of hours in the law library at work on Saturdays researching. I also knew a guy who had ALS who was an attorney, and he gave me a couple cases to cite.
It was a year later on September 23rd that I got my letter (from the VA approving the service-related ALS disability). Then I heard on the news the next day that it was (determined to be) a service-connected illness.
I saw through the support group meetings young soldiers coming home from Afghanistan with ALS. One guy found out his wife was pregnant one day and the next day, he got his diagnosis. He did live to see that child and I think that was before it was determined to be service connected. That was a huge win for the ALS community to have the resources of the VA.
(Pat) rarely lost patience with the disease. He just knew that's what his lot in life was. In the end, he donated his brain and spinal column to science. But he made sure anytime the subject came up, that he was still using it. They couldn't take it until he was finished.
Our last anniversary he said no gifts because he couldn't go out and shop. So, I got him a pillow and it said love you more, because we used to say that to each other. When I would say I love you, he would nod at the pillow in the family room. because we always said that to each other.
The last years, I was tired all the time. There were times when I would be driving home from work, and I'd have to go around the block until the tears dried up. It was just emotionally devastating to see him in that situation.
The last week, the last two weeks he was on oxygen, and we were turning it up until we got to the maximum amount. And then I knew he wouldn't make it through the next week. He passed in his sleep at about 1:30 in the morning.
We had dealt with it for 12 years and it was a journey that we were reaching the end of. We had already mourned – not walking, not talking, not eating a steak. We had already mourned all those daily activities. So by the time he did pass, the mourning was over. It was kind of a relief that he didn't have to struggle anymore.
From the first symptom, he survived 12 years. It was amazing, his determination.
We have an ALS lunch bunch. We call ourselves the ALS gals. And one of the ALS gals has a house in Connecticut on the water. We would go up there for a little less than a week and we would drink wine and we would reminisce.
Last year was the first year we didn't end up in tears in our reminiscing. We've found our new normal. It was like an awakening. None of the three of us teared up telling the stories, which are happy stories.
You just don't know what you've got inside of you until you're tested. We were tested and we made it through.