Retired Brig. Gen. Thomas Mikolajcik, a career military man who waged his greatest battle fighting to help victims of Lou Gehrig's disease, died Saturday.
He was 63.
Mikolajcik, former commander of the Charleston Air Force Base, was diagnosed in 2003 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. The disease progressively kills nerve cells, robbing its victims of muscle control until they become paralyzed and die, usually within two to five years. There is no cure.
Mikolajcik knew there was no chance he would beat the disease. He fought to improve the odds for future victims.
Carmen, his wife of 40 years, said her husband never asked, "Why me?" He told her early on, "I could cry or I could do something to help others," she said. "He chose to do that."
Mikolajcik was "always a very persistent man, very ethical, very principled," she said. "Once he got on a cause, it was usually easier to say 'yes' to him than to say 'no.' "
The Mount Pleasant resident was instrumental in forming the first ALS Association chapter in South Carolina in 2005. He also pushed for the creation of a local clinic that opened in July 2006 to treat those stricken with the neurological disorder. He helped lead an ALS support group, promoted the annual fundraising walk for the ALS chapter and made public appearances to focus attention on the disease.
The brigadier general visited Washington three times to push for ALS research and he testified before a congressional committee in July 2007. He fought to spur government action on the link between military service and ALS. Studies have found that veterans are much more likely to contract the disease than those who have never served in the military. No one is sure why.
Mikolajcik's efforts helped win additional defense funding for ALS research, bolstered Pentagon interest in the disease and paved the way for legislation establishing an ALS database to warehouse information on the disease for scientists and patients. President George W. Bush signed the ALS Registry Act into law in October.
Mikolajcik's work won him much praise and recognition. Last year, the ALS Association South Carolina Chapter honored Mikolajcik and his family for their spirit, work and courage, describing them as role models for people living with the disease.
Rebecca Jordan, the chapter's executive director, said Mikolajcik's work helped thousands of veterans and other people with ALS. "Just being in his presence made people feel better," she said.
The last time she saw him was in February. He was completely paralyzed and was having difficulty breathing, but he told her he wished he could do more.
Mikolajcik spoke candidly about the toll the disease took on his body, but he wasn't interested in sympathy or pity. He saw himself as a strong-willed spokesman who could shed light on a disease that receives little national attention.
"God has given me a cross to bear, but he also allows me to still have the energy, the faculties and the voice to maybe make a difference, whether it be in helping other people or in raising awareness," Mikolajcik said in 2006.
The grandson of Polish immigrants, he made service to country and community a hallmark theme in his life. At his 60th birthday party in August 2006, 250 people from around the globe gathered in North Charleston to pay tribute to the aging warrior. Gov. Mark Sanford lauded Mikolajcik for leading "a true life of service before self." Brig. Gen. Susan Desjardins called him "an absolute hero."
Col. Martha Meeker, Joint Base Charleston commander, said Mikolajcik's favorite quote started with the phrase "Be Strong and Courageous," and he was both. "Throughout his life in the Air Force and in the community he was a leader who others looked up to, and the strength and courage he showed at the end of his life deeply touched everyone around him."
During a 27-year career in the Air Force, Mikolajcik commanded a C-130 Wing in Rhein-Main, Germany, during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, ran all air operations during the Somalia humanitarian campaign, and served as Air Force director of transportation at the Pentagon. He ran the Charleston Air Force Base from 1991 to 1994. He retired from the Air Force in 1996.
Mikolajcik remained active as a military advisor to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and as a mentor for military commanders in the area. His contributions proved a key factor in local and state efforts to minimize base closures and job losses during the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure process in 2005.
Last year, the Charleston Air Force Base honored its former wing commander by breaking ground on the Brigadier General Thomas R. Mikolajcik Child Development Center, a $9.8 million facility that will accommodate 305 children.
Meeker said, "every time one of our airmen takes their child to the General Mikolajcik day care center or a sailor arrives at the General Mikolajcik engineering laboratory, he will be remembered. And every time a veteran suffering from ALS receives VA care, he will be thanked."
Mikolajcik also was a founding member of the Mount Pleasant Open Space Foundation and a senior advisor to the National Defense Transportation Association's local chapter.
Diane Knich contributed to this report.