Jasper veteran suffering from Huntington’s disease

JASPER, Ind. (AP) — The assumptions — you know what they say about assumptions — cut with such degradation that those closest to David Doersam can’t help but leap to his defense.

He’s drunk. He’s crazy. He’s something to stare at.

The brutal truth is that it’s hard not to notice something is askew with David, an Army veteran who spent more than a decade serving his country only to spend the following decade watching his body betray him as life around him crumbles into bouts of shaking and rocking and grunting. His disease roars toward victory in a fight David will undoubtedly lose.

David is a 45-year-old veteran from Jasper with Huntington’s disease, the genetic affliction labeled a combination of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s a trinity of evil for which there is no cure. There is involuntary jerking. Muscles contract without warning or reason. The eyes wander. Posture sags. Walking cannot be done without assistance. Speech fades from short bursts to nothing at all.

Nothing is easy.

Except for bystanders who assume the worst.

The redirection comes from Diane Pierick, David’s most loyal caretaker: “Oh, no, no, no,” she starts.

Then she explains.

“What he’s doing, that is because of his injuries as a veteran. It’s disgraceful that, without even pretending to want to know what’s wrong, people automatically have some idea. So I tell his story.”

One story is actually two. The veteran. The victim. David is both. His side of the story is direct: “I was a hero,” he says. “Now I’m nobody.”

David’s father was Clinton Doersam, a man who spent the final 10 years of his life in a nursing home because of Huntington’s. When he died in 1989, he was 50 years old and his genes gave David a 50 percent chance of developing Huntington’s as it tumbles down the branches of the family tree.

David’s siblings — Tim Doersam and Deanna Farley — do not have the disease. David was on the unfortunate side of the 50-50 bet.

David was going to develop symptoms eventually — those who inherit the malady don’t know about it until indicators surface, which usually happens somewhere between 30 and 50. For David, the suspicion is that his military injuries exacerbated the Huntington’s takeover.

First, a Humvee in which he was riding hit an improvised explosive device, shooting the vehicle into the air. That was in Iraq and left David unconscious for 20 minutes. Later in Afghanistan, a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee and knocked him to the ground. That time, he was out cold for 30 minutes.

Not long after those battlefield wounds, David showed signs his family didn’t want to see. His aunt’s symptoms began in her 20s. A cousin was in his 40s when he died. Clinton was in his 30s when his symptoms arose. David, at 35, was next.

“Their gait, the way they walk, it’s not normal,” says Marilyn Clements, David’s 76-year-old mother, who also lives in Jasper. “One time, I noticed it and told the doctors and David said, ‘You’re wrong. That’s a military walk.'”

There was other evidence.

“Common sense is completely gone,” Marilyn says. “They’re impulsive. They tend to get into trouble. David’s was alcohol. His cousin’s was drugs. With his aunt, it was shoplifting. There are different things you know are not right. His dad started having accidents — falling, fender-benders.”

David left the Army at 35 because he couldn’t focus, couldn’t complete tasks. He got in trouble with the law. He couldn’t keep a job. Life gradually veered away from the structure of the Army and the optimism of being 30-something.

It took six years for Marilyn to secure compensation through the Veterans Administration for David’s care because, in large part, “it was hard to determine what was what.”

Diane puts it this way: “There are stages to Huntington’s. What’s from the brain injury? What’s from the Huntington’s? But he’s sharp as a tack except for the two areas where he had the injuries.”

David always drew airplanes, a childhood diversion that had Marilyn almost certain her youngest child would serve in the U.S. Air Force.

Like his father, David always wanted to enlist in some capacity. School was never his favorite. College was out. So he dived into the National Guard after high school then jumped into the Army.

During a full-time military career that spanned January 1997 through March 2006, his duties and locations varied but for much of his Army years, he worked as a scout. He was the eyes and ears of the commanders on the battlefield, going into unfamiliar — and usually unfriendly — places to help develop a plan before troops put ideas into action. Often, he worked with special forces and received applause from peers and superiors for his work. Says one citation from 2004: “While facing rioters, hostile forces and civil unrest, SPC Doersam displayed exceptional courage, dedication to mission and personal sacrifice that directly contributed to the unit’s success.”

Not everything was so tense. He spent six years stationed in Hawaii.

“Time of my life,” David says. “Oh yeah.”

When Diane says David remains “sharp as a tack,” her appraisal is based largely on his memory. When anyone new shows up at David’s duplex on Jasper’s north side, Diane or Marilyn usually pulls out a photo album lined with pictures of David’s past. Some are from his civilian life before Huntington’s. Most are from the Army days. David kneels next to a recliner, leaning on its arm for support and drags his hand along the images, blurting locations that correspond to the photos.

“That was Iraq,” he starts. “That’s Hawaii. Paratroopers. Nap in Hawaii. Hawaii. Party. Ex-girlfriend. Japan. Humvee. Hawaii. Iraq. Party. Army Ball. My platoon, Rat Bastards. Pearl Harbor. Japan. Iraq. I forget. Iraq. Camel spiders, they’re huge. Artillery. Can’t remember. School. Holy Family. Iraq. Barbecue, best in the world, outstanding.”

He’s been to 38 countries. He sometimes visited Holy Family School in Jasper to tell students at his alma mater about his military experience. He worked. He had relationships and friends and barbecue he’ll never forget.

Those days are gone.

Now, he’s almost exclusively confined to the duplex and the reality is that death is around the corner. Marilyn already has his headstone in place and, as David’s condition deteriorates, she faces another truth: Sometime between now and the end, David will have to be placed in a nursing home. That will only add to Marilyn’s unending stream of paperwork, but it may relieve some of the burden that comes with wondering at all hours whether David is doing at least well enough to get by.

“People distance themselves,” Marilyn says. “It’s tough, very tough. I knew the military was the best for him. He got into some dangerous situations but I knew that is what he really wanted. When he wanted to get out, something didn’t seem right.”

Because of his movements, he cannot operate a computer and cannot text. Friends are scarce. Former military peers have forgotten him.

“Once they find out I have (Huntington’s), they bailed,” David says.

His days now are filled with various ways to avoid boredom and, somehow, feel like he’s really living his life.

He watches sports — Indiana Pacers basketball, St. Louis Cardinals baseball, Denver Broncos football — and plays the video game “Call of Duty.” He guzzles Mountain Dew, dipping toward a straw propped in the bottle, sipping quickly and rising abruptly because that’s all his body allows. He confides in Diane, who isn’t the only caretaker but is the one who’s there most often, usually five to seven hours, four days a week. She works through Home Instead, but her hours with David are funded by the Wounded Warriors and the VA.

“I help keep a calendar and routine,” Diane says. “I’m here to make sure he’s OK. He has choking and balance issues once in awhile. I’ve learned what sounds, when he goes to bed, what ones are OK, normal and what aren’t normal. It gives Marilyn a lot of peace when I’m here. She doesn’t have to worry.”

She still worries.

Huntington’s is not the only ailment gripping David. Post-traumatic stress disorder leaves him anxious and afraid. The blinds in his duplex are almost always closed, there’s a towel over a small window in the front door and he begins each morning by opening all his cabinet doors because he’s certain somebody is out to get him. For similar reasons, he becomes uneasy when anyone stands behind him. Sometimes, he wakes up in the middle of the night because, even in his slumber, he can smell the stench of the burning oil of Iraq.

He rarely ventures into the public eye.

There are trips to the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Jasper from time to time and he visits a counselor in Huntingburg and doctors at the VA in Evansville. Recently, he began physical therapy.

Those trips are not common nor are they convenient. They can be uncomfortable. It’s easy for others to judge.

Diane recalls one trip to the VFW. David heard the chatter nearby and turned to Diane.

“They’re talking about me,” he told her.

Diane welcomed herself to the adjacent conversation. She told them David’s story.

“Anybody I see give him a funny look, I tell the story,” she says. “They do this big service for our country, and it’s like eh, meh. People come home with injuries that change them as a human being, but we need to make sure they stay connected instead of just being forgotten.”