KILLEEN — Dale Jackson Sr., a former Army helicopter mechanic, wants to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
In the 1980s, Jackson’s father died at age 51. He had been a flight engineer, serving in Vietnam, where he had once been soaked in Agent Orange, a herbicide used to kill dense jungle vegetation the enemy used as cover.
“He was dying in pain,” said Jackson, 55, a Killeen resident.
His father’s death is a hard topic for Jackson to discuss. His father never got to meet Jackson’s children. And now Jackson — suffering from a number of health issues of his own — isn’t sure if he’ll ever get to meet his grandchildren.
“Anytime I go to the VA, I see about five of these,” he said, pointing to the continuous positive airway pressure machine on his kitchen table.
The shoebox-sized machine, complete with air hose and face mask, keeps him breathing at night. Jackson said he sufferers from sleep apnea, and one sleep study showed he stopped breathing 100 times in a single night.
He estimates Veterans Affairs hospitals dish out thousands or more CPAP machines every year to veterans like himself with breathing trouble, Type 2 diabetes and other problems.
For Jackson, the main root of his health problems is clear: Not properly protecting his body from dangerous oils, lubricants and other chemicals commonly used by aviation mechanics and elsewhere in the Army.
Aircraft lubricants and cleaning agents may cause dizziness, nausea, fatigue and other immediate problems if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, according to material safety data sheet information that comes with just about any chemical used by the military.
Jackson said soldiers should carefully read the MSDS for any chemical they work with, whether it’s in the field, in the motor pool, on a helicopter pad or elsewhere.
From jet fuel and hydraulic fluid used in tanks to engine oil in trucks, all of those fluids can cause harm if ingested or absorbed into the body. Some chemicals can even harm the body’s reproduction system.
Jackson encourages everyone to read follow the safety procedures detailed on MSDS.
“It all breaks down to awareness,” Jackson said. “Eventually, it is the individual person. … Do you want to have healthy kids or do you want a jacked-up reproduction system?”
MSDS include safety procedures for any given chemical, which vary from wearing rubber gloves to wearing gas masks and full haz-mat suits.
“It depends on what the chemical is,” Jackson said.
Jackson encourages soldiers to carry a jug of water and a small bottle of soap when working on vehicles. If oil gets on the hands or arms “wash as soon as possible with soap and water; don’t just wipe it off,” he said.
That sentiment is echoed on just about any MSDS document. On the MSDS of a lubricant known as 23699, used commonly on turbine engines, it advises, in case of skin contact, to “wash with soap and water, remove contaminated clothing and shoes, wash contaminated clothing before re-use, and get medical attention if irritation develops and persists.”
Back when Jackson was in the Army — from 1976 to 1986 — a lot of soldiers just wiped their hands with a dirty towel while working with aviation fluids. That’s still the case today, he said, adding soldiers should also wear respirators, even cheap ones, when working with chemicals that can be breathed in.
Doing so may prevent young soldiers from suffering illnesses when they get older, Jackson said, adding he first noticed symptoms in 1979 after working with Cobra helicopters. In the years since, he worked with Hueys, Apaches, Chinooks and Black Hawks, and symptoms of nausea, dizziness and developing diabetes crept up along the years. In recent years, the symptoms — and Jackson’s diabetes — got worse, and the veteran said he’s convinced the lax methods he used as an aviation mechanic contributed to his poor health today.
He’s made it a mission to talk to young soldiers whenever he can about the importance of washing hands and avoiding as much direct contact with chemicals as possible.
“There’s another wave of soldiers coming behind me. If I could stop just one person, then I’ve done something,” he said.
Among those young soldiers is his son — an aircraft refueler serving in Kuwait with the Texas National Guard.
For now, Jackson will keep trying to make young soldiers aware of the importance of properly cleaning oil from their bodies and clothes, as well as wearing a respirator.
And, when his grandchildren are born, he’s hoping to spend as much time with them as possible.