CHICAGO (AP) — Former Illinois Rep. Lane Evans, a Vietnam War-era Marine who fought for veterans' rights during his 24 years in the U.S. House, has died after a long fight with Parkinson's disease.
The Democrat died Wednesday at a nursing home in East Moline, Illinois, said his former congressional staffer, Michael Malmstrom, who also was one of Evans' legal guardians. He was 63.
"In the early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Lane was one of the first members of Congress to take on issues like PTSD and TBI," said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO Paul Rieckhoff, referring to the acronym for traumatic brain injury. "He helped put our issues on the map."
Evans joined the Marines at age 17, and had orders for Vietnam. But he served in Okinawa, Japan, as a security guard because his older brother was already deployed in the war.
As a congressman, he fought for the rights of veterans and became the senior Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. He pushed legislation to help those exposed to Agent Orange and to give former service members rights to judicial review in pursuing benefits claims.
He also campaigned for veterans grappling with post-traumatic stress disorders and other health problems, as well as those having trouble finding employment.
Evans was first elected from his western Illinois district in 1982, when he was a 31-year-old attorney, and went on to serve 12 terms. He worked for more than a decade after his Parkinson's diagnosis, but announced in 2006 that he wouldn't seek re-election because of his deteriorating health.
Evans was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1995, but he didn't publicly announce the diagnosis for three years, worried the revelation would stigmatize him. He first realized something was wrong when he couldn't wave his left hand during a parade.
Still, he maintained a hectic congressional schedule. But toward the end of his time in office he was briefly hospitalized and missed votes, committee meetings and hearings.
In a statement announcing his retirement, Evans acknowledged his "window of opportunity is now closing." He left office in January 2007.
President Barack Obama has credited Evans with aiding his own political rise, saying once that he wouldn't have made it to the U.S. Senate without early support from his fellow Illinoisan.
Obama has also called Evans "one of the most gracious, best humored and hardest working people that I've ever had the pleasure to know."
"Above all, Lane was an American hero, a dear friend and a beloved public servant of the people of Illinois," Obama said in a statement late Thursday.
Recently, Evans required round-the-clock care. Faced with mounting medical bills, friends and member of Congress raised $80,000 to help.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said Thursday that a disease "trapped his body but never restrained his great spirit."
Democratic U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, who represents the district Evans served, recalled first getting to know him as a newspaper reporter.
"Lane will be sorely missed by all who he touched, but his legacy of service will never be forgotten," Bustos said.
Evans is survived by three brothers.