BILLINGS - Dylan Jefferson didn’t think he had many options after graduating from Hardin High School in 2002, so the 17-year-old Crow Tribe member brought a permission slip home to his grandmother to allow him to enlist in the U.S. Army.
With the country still in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he knew he was likely headed to war, but he never expected he’d still be dealing with the trauma 20 years later.
"Twice a week it shows up," Jefferson said. "My wife will catch on to it because she’ll see me rubbing my thumb."
Jefferson’s wife Julia has seen it many times — 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 pin it on multiple sclerosis," he said. "No one could tell me what’s wrong with me."
He also struggles to breathe. People told him it was the same thing most combat 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 out. I'm not focused on what's 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, bringing damaged vehicles and equipment back to the base. Because they had large machinery to do that, they were also put in charge of trash disposal.
"We can’t just throw stuff in the dumpster — it could be confidential," he said. "So everything we have to burn. Everything we have to burn."
And he means everything - electronics, aerosols, human waste. Every two weeks, the burn pit was his office.
"To make sure everything is burning, we’d 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 it."
Burn pits were common throughout U.S. bases during both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Jefferson, who has also been clinically diagnosed with PTSD, says he’s gotten great care for his mental health, but almost 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 is the goal,'" he said. "Cool. Thank you so much. But when I go to the VA, they say, 'We don't know what it is. We're going to do more tests.'
"I would like to see, 'This is because of burn pits. We're going to do this, this and this. This is the end goal. Let's do it.'"
That’s what the PACT Act is designed to do: to give 3.5 million American veterans exposed to toxic burn pits medical help. 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 at the sacrifice all of us did, we do feel forgotten."
Jefferson has recently taken a job with the state of Montana to help veterans like himself, especially on the Crow Indian reservation. And that’s why he’ll continue to follow the PACT act’s progress.
"My job is to keep these guys alive," he said. "A veteran could be having the best day, and something like this is all it takes for that veteran to take their own life. That's all it takes."