I have faced many battles in my life. I served in Vietnam as a Marine Corps corporal. I also completed four tours in Iraq in the U.S. Army, and four of my sons served in Iraq, too. But all my battles have not been while serving in the military.
My mother passed away from Alzheimer’s disease. I lost my son, Dennis Jr., in a motorcycle accident. And now, I am facing my own battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
I was preparing for a sixth deployment to Iraq when my Colonel and my wife brought up concerns about changes they were seeing. I had just received a Secretary Manager of the Year Award, but I was aware that something was wrong. I had been waking up in the middle of the night realizing there was something I forgot to do — or something I needed to do. Recognizing my memory was changing, I decided to retire. Too many people’s lives would be at risk if I went on a last tour in Iraq.
I was diagnosed in 2008 with early-stage Alzheimer’s. When I received the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, it was almost a relief. It provided an explanation for what was going on. It also provided a path forward. There were plans I needed to put in place for the future.
Everything has been documented, so there is no dispute and no questions for my children when this disease progresses. We dotted all the “I’s” and crossed all the “T’s” to make sure everything is in place. It’s an important thing for anyone who has been diagnosed to do.
It’s also important to realize that a diagnosis isn’t the end of the world. Truly – it’s not. You aren’t alone. There are so many people available to help you and so many people committed to finding a cure. It’s difficult to accept, but easier to do if you are open and honest with those around you.
In fact, I talked until 2 a.m. about my diagnosis with one of my military buddies last week. I have friends that I went through grade school, high school and the military with, and we have no secrets. We openly talk about this disease. It’s a source of strength and comfort to have the people around me know what is going on. Alzheimer’s isn’t my fault. It’s no one’s fault. And there is no reason to feel guilt over it. It’s out of my control.
It really helped having an Alzheimer’s Association representative from my local chapter come and explain why things aren’t like they used to be to my family. I have 11 grandchildren – and they all understand that things aren’t quite the same and the whole family is making adjustments. But that doesn’t keep us from spending meaningful time together, which is what I plan to do tomorrow on the Fourth of July.
We will all dress in red, white and blue and gather together for a barbeque at my son’s house. Our flag will be at half mast, and I will remember the battles I have been in and the one I am facing now. I believe we are here to help others – to leave a legacy. As I spend time with my family, I know that I have left my mark by raising my family to be good citizens. And I still have more to give. I will keep on moving forward and not give up.
Dennis Henley is a member of the national Alzheimer’s Association 2012 Early-Stage Advisory Group. He was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s in 2008. Prior to his retirement, he served in the U.S. military for 26 years, including working in counter intelligence for the Army and as the Chief of Security for the Army Corp of Engineers in Jacksonville, Fla. Dennis lives in Littlestown, Pa., with his wife, Mary.