FORT WORTH -- Less than 12 months ago, Jason Vest didn't particularly like the look of his future.
"It looked hard," he said. "There was so much unknown."
At 30, Vest was being medically retired from the Air Force, his career as a special-operations pilot over just as it began to blossom. His health was declining from a rare, incurable neuromuscular disease. His monthly disability payments were half of his Air Force pay, and his wife had given up her career to take care of him.
But Vest, his wife and two young children have just moved into a brand-new four-bedroom house in far north Fort Worth, given to him free and clear by Operation Finally Home, a New Braunfels-based nonprofit. That alone has done wonders to brighten his future.
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"This house has been such a blessing," he said. "It's an answer to prayer really."
Most of the recipients of houses built by organizations such as Operation Finally Home, Helping A Hero and other groups are combat-disabled.
But Vest, who has Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome, was just as deserving because "of the combat missions he flew in Iraq and the uncertainty of where he contracted the disease," Executive Director Daniel Vargas said.
"Here is a young man who served his country, left his family, volunteered to do special operations in combat and ended up getting sick," Vargas said. "We felt justified in getting him a home to meet his family's needs."
Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome is a neuromuscular disease in which the immune system attacks the body's tissues, interfering with nerves' signals to muscles. It is most often associated with cancer patients, but Vest has proved cancer-free, leading him to suspect that the disease was triggered by something environmental he experienced in Iraq.
He takes medication from a clinical trial several times a day to improve his mobility, but it wears off quickly and has serious side effects if he takes too much. He is trying to stave off use of a walker or scooter.
"It's weird being perfectly healthy and being a pilot in the Air Force at the top of the world, and then within a short amount of time, I'm focused on having the strength to go from one room to the next," he said.
A promising beginning
After graduating from L.D. Bell High School in Hurst in 1999, Vest enrolled at Texas A&M University and joined the Corps of Cadets. But he discovered that he wanted something different.
"I found out that instead of playing war games, I really wanted to move on to the real thing," he said.
He enlisted in the Air Force and became an airborne radio operator on E-3 Sentry aircraft, known unofficially as an AWACS. He deployed in 2001 to support the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
When not working, he attended Southeastern Oklahoma State University and took private pilot lessons. He also married Danielle Cox, an Arlington native whom he met at A&M when they were freshmen.
After earning his bachelor of science degree in 2005, Vest moved on to officer candidate school and flight training, where he finished first in his class, giving him first choice of which aircraft to fly. He chose the F-16 Viper.
The problem was that there wasn't a slot for him in F-16s at the time, so rather than bide his time unproductively, Vest jumped at the chance to fly in the Air Force's special operations wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla. In autumn 2009, Vest deployed to Balad, Iraq, which he believes is the root of his health problems. He's not alone in that suspicion either.
Thousands of servicemen and women have said that Balad's "burn pits" -- where trash, plastic, computer parts, plastic foam and diesel engines were burned in the open air on a U.S. base -- are the reason for a major spike in respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological problems among those who breathed the pollution day after day.
"The air quality was horrible," he said. "A haze hung over the whole base."
While he was deployed, he noticed fatigue and a feeling of extra weight on his muscles. But he pushed through, thinking he was just overly tired. The problems worsened, even after he returned to Florida. He lost weight and muscle mass and grew weaker, confounding his unit's flight surgeon.
Finally, in June 2010, doctors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham diagnosed him with Lambert-Eaton.
"I tried about a year of treatment because I wanted to see if it could be cured or reversed," he said. "But eventually I realized this is the best I'm going to be. I'm not going to be a pilot anymore. It was hard to swallow."
The Air Force medically retired him in August, and he and his family returned to North Texas.
"It was a no-brainer," Danielle said. "This was always home. This is where our families are. We wanted to get back to the love and support we needed. And we wanted the kids to have aunts and uncles and cousins around."
Operation Finally Home got in touch with Vest through an Air Force caseworker and offered him a free house. The house, in a neighborhood north of Loop 820 in the Keller school district, was built by Pulte Group. Many of its subcontractors either donated their services or drastically discounted them.
The house has many handicapped-accessible features, but it also has stairs to the children's bedrooms and an entertainment area. Vest wanted those stairs.
"Stairs are hard for me, but the builder didn't judge me for choosing that floor plan," he said. "My thought was that I'm young. It's too early to stop trying."
Online: For more information on Operation Finally Home, go to www.babasupport.org.
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547