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A Dying Hero - SSG James Alford - Update 3

    "My son would actually be better off financially with retirement, but this is not about money. He should be allowed to die a soldier." - Army Sergeant Major (ret.) John Alford, father of Staff Sergeant James Alford

For background information (posts go back 10 months), please read this and this first. SSG Alford has been dying of a non-curable disease that he contracted while serving in the Special Forces in Oman. By all accounts, he has served heroically in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Army has mistreated him severally times. Once, by trying to throw him out for bad behavior (that was actually caused by the disease), and again, by trying to retire him from Active Duty. SSG Alford's family has him going through a new experimental treatment for two reasons - to keep their loved one alive in search of a treatment and to try to help others find a cure.

Jay B. sends this update from the Dallas News (Saturday, October 8, 2004). It's registration required so I'll post the whole article for you.

Family is fighting to let sergeant die a soldier
Army rules require discharge of Green Beret with brain disease
By NANCY BARR CANSON / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

KARNACK, Texas – Staff Sgt. James Alford is still alive and, so far at least, is still on active duty.

Sent home from Iraq with a terminal brain disease in mid- 2003, Sgt. Alford, 25, was expected to die before Christmas of last year.

But monthly injections in his brain of an experimental drug are keeping him alive, without improving his condition.

The decorated Green Beret soldier is in a vegetative state because of the ravages of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD, a degenerative brain disorder similar to mad cow disease.

But now that he has outlived his prognosis, his wife and parents are battling the latest of several bureaucratic disputes with the Army, which wants to retire him.

"He is entitled to die as a soldier," said John Alford, the soldier's father. "Why can't they leave the boy alone and let him have his dignity?"

Army officials say it is simply a matter of regulation – Sgt. Alford is not medically capable of returning to active duty, and regulations say he should be granted a medical discharge.

"We already fought for this back in December," Mr. Alford said. "They agreed to keep him on active duty status because his death was imminent. Now they've reneged on their promise."

The Army says it hasn't reneged. The family was told in December that disability processing would be "reinitiated" if Sgt. Alford's condition improved or he appeared to have a longer life expectancy, according to a medical board memo.

Mr. Alford said this is not a financial dispute. "My son would actually be better off financially with retirement," he said. "But this is not about money. He should be allowed to die a soldier."

Army spokeswoman Nelia Schrum at the Brooke Army Medical Center said she is sympathetic, "but with the global war on terror, we've had more than 3,000 soldiers [medically retired] this year. Could we grant each of them an exception?"

To that, Mr. Alford, himself a retired command sergeant major who served 30 years in the Army, said, "The Army has discretion when a soldier is dying. Every soldier whose death is imminent should get an exception."

At issue now is whether his son's death is "imminent."

"It's like he's not dying fast enough to suit them," said the Alfords' attorney, Mike C. Miller of Marshall.

No one knows how long injections of pentosan polysulphate, a common paint thickener with medicinal uses, will keep the soldier alive. Only a few other CJD patients in the world are known to have undergone the radical treatment – one young patient has outlived his life expectancy by 22 months and is still alive. The drug seems to slow the disease but is not a cure.

Sgt. Alford's physician, Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew P. Wicklund, has written a letter to the review board saying Sgt. Alford's condition "continues to worsen. Although I can't predict precisely his outcome, I would be surprised if he survived through the winter."

U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, has intervened.

"This [medical discharge] never should have been reinitiated," said Bill Brannon, a spokesman in Mr. Sandlin's office. "We're doing everything we can to fight it."

Sgt. Alford is dying of "classical, sporadic CJD," which can occur spontaneously, without any cause, and is distinct from "new variant CJD," known as human mad cow disease, which is said to be caused by eating contaminated beef.

The Alfords believe their son's illness was caused by eating sheep's brains while he was serving in Oman. Medical experts say they don't know the cause.

Sgt. Alford was initially demoted by the Army when early symptoms of his then-undiagnosed disease were mistaken for misconduct.

The Alford family fought to restore his rank, and the Army corrected its mistake.

"The Army has discretion," said the attorney, Mr. Miller. "There's no reason why they couldn't just put this file on the bottom of the stack."

Nancy Barr Canson is a free-lance writer based in East Texas.

One thing that you can do, is fill out a form with your thoughts to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, and let him know that this is unacceptable. Strongly request that Staff Sergeant James Alford be kept on Active Duty.

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