Billings veteran battling health issues after exposure to toxic burn pit

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BILLINGS – Dylan Jefferson didn’t think he had many options after graduating from Hardin High School in 2002, so the 17-year-old Crow tribesman brought permission from his grandmother to allow him to enlist in the US Army.

With the country still in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he knew he was likely headed for war, but he didn’t expect he would still be dealing with the trauma 20 years later. .

“Twice a week he pops up,” Jefferson said. “My wife will understand because she will see me rubbing my thumb.”

Jefferson’s wife, Julia, has seen it repeatedly – Dylan’s signal when he knows the left side of his body is about to go numb.

“Doctors thought I had a stroke. They were trying to put it down to multiple sclerosis,” he said. “Nobody could tell me what’s wrong with me.”

CASEY CONLON / MTN News

Julia Jefferson (right) can usually spot the onset of her husband Dylan’s temporary paralysis. Dylan believes his health problems stem from exposure to toxic combustion fireplaces when he was deployed to Iraq with the US military in 2004.

He also has trouble breathing. People told him it was the same thing most veterans deal with: PTSD.

“People would tell me it’s just anxiety, and I’m like, I can’t breathe,” he said. “I’m not stressed. I’m not focused on what’s going on over there. I’m sitting here focused on my breathing and I can’t breathe.”

Jefferson was deployed to Iraq in 2004. He was a recovery specialist, returning damaged vehicles and equipment to base. Because they had big machines to do it, they were also put in charge of waste disposal.

“We can’t just throw things in the trash – it could be confidential,” he said. “So all we gotta burn. All we gotta burn.”

And he means everything – electronics, aerosols, human waste. Every two weeks, the fire pit was his office.

Dylan Jefferson Pit

Photo courtesy of Dylan Jefferson

Dylan Jefferson (right) tells a local teenager near Tikrit, Iraq that he can’t have the cardboard box between them because he has orders to burn everything in the pit behind.

“To make sure everything burns, we spray diesel fuel on it,” he added. “There were no respirators, no face masks. I’m not sure the commander even knew what the long term effects were. I’m sure none of us knew what the long term effects were. , but we were ordered to do so.”

Fire pits were common in US bases during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jefferson, who was also clinically diagnosed with PTSD, says he received a lot of care for his mental health, but next to nothing for his physical struggles.

“When we go to the vet center, it’s like, ‘You have PTSD. We’re going to go through this, this and this, and here’s the goal,'” he said. “Cool. Thank you very much. But when I go to the VA, they say, ‘We don’t know what this is. We will do more testing.

“I’d like to see, ‘It’s because of the hotspots. We’re going to do this, this, and that. That’s the end goal. Let’s do it.'”

That’s what the PACT Act is designed to do: give medical aid to 3.5 million American veterans exposed to toxic burns. And that’s why last week’s Senate failure was so hard to watch.

“It’s disheartening, almost degrading in a way,” Jefferson said. “When I look back on the sacrifice we all made, we feel left out.”

Jefferson recently took a job in the state of Montana to help veterans like him, especially on the Crow Indian Reservation. And that is why it will continue to follow the progress of the PACT law.

“My job is to keep these guys alive,” he said. “A veteran might have the best day, and something like that is all it takes for that veteran to kill himself. That’s all it takes.”

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