Skip to main content
The Official Site of the Columbus Blue Jackets

A lesson in courage from Chuck Schretzman, Elk and Elk Military honoree

Blue Jackets and Elk & Elk honoree Chuck Schretzman talks about his military experience and battle with ALS

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

The first time he noticed something was off, Chuck Schretzman was in Afghanistan.

Then an active lieutenant colonel in the Army, Schretzman was serving the last of four combat tours back in 2011 when he began having trouble with balance. He also developed an issue with his gait and would take an occasional tumble for no apparent reason.

"Toward the end, I started getting off-balance," said Schretzman, the Elk & Elk Military Salutes honoree at the Blue Jackets game Dec. 23 against the Philadelphia Flyers. "It was weird. I was falling down stairs, and I was like, 'I don't know what's going on.' I was falling down and hitting my head."

It would've been strange for any solider to deal with, but especially Schretzman, a lifelong athlete and fitness aficionado.

Schretzman prided himself on his fitness level and strength during his entire 26-year military career, after attending West Point and playing college football for Army - competing in two bowl games, beating Navy three out of four years and earning the MVP award in the 1988 Army-Navy game, played in his hometown of Philadelphia.

Schretzman was chiseled from stone, basically, for his entire military career. From his barrel chest to wrought-iron arms, he was essentially a walking Army recruitment billboard. Coming home from that final tour in Afghanistan, though, he knew something wasn't right.

"We just thought it was some sort of inner-ear infection, because it wasn't real prominent," said Stacy Schretzman, Chuck's wife of 27 years. "His feet just started to trip up a little bit, and he was off-balance and just couldn't get his fitness back. It was very odd. Chuck had run two marathons and several triathlons."

The symptoms subsided for nearly two years, but then returned.

That's when they decided to consult a doctor. An appointment was arranged at Walter Reed National Medical Military Center in Washington, D.C., and Stacy decided to poke around on the internet, out of curiosity.

Each time she put Chuck's symptoms into the search engine, the same website kept popping up at the top. It belonged to the national ALS Association, which advocates and lends support for those battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease."

Video: We thank Chuck for his service to our country

Her pulse quickened. She knew about ALS because it was 2014, and that was the year of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, a fundraising effort that swept across the country and raised millions for ALS research.

One of those donations was made by Stacy Schretzman, who dumped a bucket of icy-cold water over her head, along with their youngest daughter, Chloe. She wrote out a check to help fund research for the disease, which she didn't know much about.

"I was kind of freaked out about it, so we had him seen at Walter Reed, and they basically told me that I was being a 'Google Doctor,' and that he was good … that he was good to go and was fine," Stacy said. "But that's the nature of the disease. It can take a while for the symptoms to come out and manifest, until they can put together the whole picture."

Eventually the picture became clear, to the Schretzmans and Dr. Colin Quinn, who officially diagnosed Chuck as having ALS during a follow-up neurology exam required for his retirement physical. He was given a prognosis of two-to-five years to live, which Stacy recalls as "a dark time," at the beginning.

A NEW ENEMY

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a neurological disorder that causes muscle-controlling nerves to malfunction.

It can start in the feet or hands, move to the legs and arms, and eventually it can completely paralyze the entire body - causing muscle atrophy, loss of weight, loss of motor function and abnormal fatigue.

Its exact cause is unknown, and there is no cure. There are only two FDA-approved drugs to slow progression of the disease, and when the nerves that control lung capacity and breathing are severely affected, it's often fatal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 14,500 to 15,000 people in the United States had ALS in 2016, with about 5,000 per year receiving a diagnosis. Multiple studies have also concluded that ALS cases happen more often with those who've served in the military than those who haven't.

That last fact struck a nerve with the Schretzman family, because in Chuck's case, ALS wasn't an inherited disease. He has a form called Sporadic ALS, which occurs randomly and covers 90 to 95 percent of all cases.

"That's our problem," Chuck said. "They don't know why. They don't know what causes the disease."

What is known about ALS is that it affects people differently.

Most who have it live three to five years after diagnosis, but a small segment can live for 10 years or longer. Famed scientist Stephen Hawking, for example, was diagnosed at age 21 and is still living at age 76, using a motorized wheelchair and a computer for speech.

Chuck's goal is now to prolong his life as much as possible, which he's trying to do by staying as active as possible. He does physical therapy sessions, takes medicine through hour-long infusion session every two weeks and just tries to keep his body in motion.

"The problem with the disease is that it affects people so differently," Stacy said. "When we were initially diagnosed, we were told he had two-to-five years to live, and here we are however many years later and he's still walking and talking."

Both of those activities, however, are challenges. Chuck fights every day to hold onto them, fearing that once he stops, they'll never return. There are two wheelchairs in his garage, and both are still collecting dust.

His philosophy is an adaptation of Newton's First Law of Motion: a body in motion stays in motion.

"He's still walking and talking but talking with a lot of difficulty and walking with a lot of difficulty," Stacy said. "His right hand and shoulder are at minimal strength. It's starting to go over to his left shoulder. He's still going to physical therapy three days a week. Fitness and staying in the fight has really been his hallmark."

STAYING POSITIVE

It was Chuck, ever the soldier, who was first to pick up the pieces after his diagnosis, along with picking up the spirits of his family - which includes Stacy and their three children, Zack, Olivia and Chloe.

Chuck accepted the diagnosis, processed it and then put it into perspective with the help of a motto he borrows from inspirational speaker, Dr. Kevin Elko.

"Dr. Elko's phrase is, 'So what? Now what?'" Stacy said. "It's like, 'So, what? I have ALS. Now what am I going to do with this information and how am I going to make a difference?'"

Chuck Schretzman is making that difference in multiple ways.

He began working to bring various agencies together with veterans to discuss the impact ALS is having on the military. He's also staying active and takes a great deal of pride in doing what used to be mundane.

The little things in his life are now are gigantic things.

"I got up this morning," Chuck said, mustering the energy to speak through strained speech. "I walked today. I can't think about tomorrow. I got out of bed today, and I walked into the bathroom. You know what I'm saying? One day at a time, man."

He cited the case of Dwight Clark, former star tight end of the San Francisco 49ers. Clark, who's now in his 60s, also has ALS and has dropped a striking amount of weight.

"He says about ALS, 'It's a brutal disease that tears you down,'" Chuck said. "It's devastating. It's like you go from Pee Wee to the NFL, like … you're in the big leagues with this disease. It is horrible. Just horrible."

And yet, the soldier inside won't let Schretzman give into that reality, physically or mentally.

He goes to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Dayton every two weeks, like clockwork, sitting through those hour-long infusions to receive a drug called Radicava, which can slow the progression of ALS by up 30 percent.

That's not great, but at least it's something positive. The other approved drug for ALS suppression is called Riluzole, which was approved in 1995 by the FDA.

"That one's supposed to give you …" Stacy said, before Chuck finished her sentence. "… three-to-five months, on the back end," he said. "Sobering."

That word, "sobering," can describe this entire turn of events for the Schretzmans the past four years. Blindsided, at first, they now deal with their reality by simply enjoying life more.

"A person at the VA stopped me the other day and he's struggling with some kind of cancer, and he said, 'Your husband said something to me very early-on,'" Stacy recalled. "He said, 'I have ALS. I have this disease and it's going to kill me, but I'm not going to allow it to kill my spirit. I'm going to live every single day like it's my last.' And I think that's what we've drilled down on. Every single day, we're just going to appreciate living with each other, being together … and that's how we stay positive."

A HOCKEY FAMILY

Stacy can't be sure, but she has her suspicions.

During Chuck's active military career, he once accepted an assignment in Canada. His son, Zack, just happened to be a young hockey player at the time. So, they moved to the Great White North.

"My husband's a football player, but he's always been an avid, complete hockey fan," said Stacy, who attended West Point and played college basketball there for two-plus seasons. "We were hockey parents and our son played hockey, so on one of our tours Chuck actually accepted an assignment up in Canada. I believe that a lot of the motivation was so that Zachary could get taught on how to play up there."

If so, it worked.

Zack joined a travel team in Canada and learned how to play a skill game with a high hockey IQ. When they returned to Ohio, he became captain of the Springboro High School hockey team.

As Stacy remembers it, her son was a 6-foot-6 "finesse" player, and he wasn't the only one who honed his skills playing hockey in Canada. Chuck played a little bit too.

"I was always playing up there, and my son was always playing," he said. "Lunch hockey. I loved it. I can only skate forward, though."

Chuck now follows the Blue Jackets, especially after his honoree night. He got a Blue Jackets scarf that night, which he still wears on every trip to the Dayton VA.

"He loves his scarf," Stacy said. "He wears it to his infusions."

It probably reminds him of a special night, when his daughters accompanied him onto the ice at Nationwide Arena for the singing of the national anthem. Zack, now a first lieutenant in the Army, wasn't able to make it back from South Carolina, but that was the only down side of that night.

Well, sort of.

Since Chuck grew up in Philadelphia, he was quietly pulling for the Flyers, who lost 2-1 to the Blue Jackets in a shootout.

"That's what was great about that night," Chuck said. "They played the Flyers, so it was real cool. The Flyers lost in the shootout, but it was a really good game. It was exciting … but I kept it on the down low about liking the Flyers."

His presence at the game wasn't a secret. 

As with all military salutes honorees, Chuck got some time on the video board above center ice during a stoppage in play. His military accomplishments and facts about his family were relayed to the crowd, which gave him a loud cheer.

"They gave us great seats," Stacy said. "People were coming up and shaking Chuck's hand, and he gets a tremendous amount of energy from that kind of thing."

THE FAMILY BUSINESS

The Schretzmans all share some things in common: they're all big, they're all athletes and they all have a close connection to West Point.

Chuck and Stacy, who both stand 6-2, were NCAA athletes for Army and met each other there as plebes (freshmen). Zack, now a first lieutenant stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia, is a 2014 West Point graduate who stands 6-6. Olivia, a first lieutenant stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, is a 2015 West Point graduate who stands 6-1.

And then there's Chloe, the youngest Schretzman, who's "only" a mere 6-foot.

She's a senior at Tippecanoe High School in Troy and just got her official appointment to West Point a couple weeks ago. She'll be there in July.

Chloe earned her appointment with some hard work in the gym, after struggling to meet the physical fitness standard in the flexed-arm hang. She eventually passed the test after putting in a lot of work with a trainer, who was hired only because Chuck couldn't oversee her workouts any longer.

After balancing two-a-day workouts with schoolwork and participation in basketball and volleyball, Chloe passed her flexed-arm hang test and completed her file for West Point. The entire Schretztman family anxiously awaited the final decision, which recently arrived in surprise form during a West Point Society dinner in Cincinnati.

During the dinner, Chloe was presented with her appointment by the Superintendent of the United States Military Academies.

"They were just introducing all the top candidates and he said, 'I need to stop the introductions for a minute, because I have a surprise for this young lady,'" Stacy said. "Then he opened up her appointment and handed it to her, which was just incredible."

Chuck couldn't help himself. Even soldiers have soft spots.

"We all started crying," he said. "We're her best friends. It is amazing … and it's not me. I had nothing to do with it."

Actually, he had a ton to do with it, simply by leading the life he did.

His first two children are West Point grads now serving their country in active-duty roles in the Army. His youngest is on her way to West Point this summer. It's enough to make him forget about his struggle to live for a second, as his heart wells with pride. 

"What made it really fun was, I had a great partner in Stacy and the kids loved it," Chuck said of his military career. "To me, it's all about family and it's really an honor for me and Stacy, that Zack, 'Livy' and Chloe went to West Point, or they're going to West Point, and followed in our footsteps."

Pausing for a breath, he continued.

"They saw all the hardships and all the things bad that happened, and they choose that path. It's an amazing path and challenging. Sometimes, it knocks you to your knees. And in the end, they choose that. I mean, I can't express in words what it means … when they take your same path."

Part of Chuck Schretzman lives vicariously through his kids now. It's the soldier in him, which will never quit fighting until the day his body gives him no choice in the matter.

"I loved the Army," he said. "I would be in the Army today. I miss it. I hear my kids tell me stories now, and I'm like, 'Oh, my goodness … I want to be there!' I have a lot left in the tank. Trust me. I ain't done yet. It's coming … but I ain't done yet."

View More