Howard Dotson, a 52-year-old missionary, health care chaplain and school bus driver from Fridley, has dedicated his life to people in the most dire situations.
Dotson joined the Army straight out of high school, which cultivated a desire to head to the world's hot spots. He has served as a health care chaplain and police chaplain in the Twin Cities and Los Angeles, often working with families of homicide victims. He served as a missionary in Kenya and in South Africa, working with Somali refugees and with people living with HIV or AIDS, and he's been to Lebanon three times to do therapy with refugee children from Syria's civil war.
So, when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Doston needed to go. He flew to Poland in March and did art therapy with young war refugees. He returned in May, continuing the therapy and organizing bus evacuations, and went back in July. During each trip he spent much of his time in Ukraine.
"To support someone in that search for hope and meaning after such a tragedy, that's where the gospel meets the road," Dotson said. "I look to the helpers. There's always going to be evil in the world. You just put your energy on the folks who are trying to be part of the healing."
On Thanksgiving, he's going to fly there again. He'll try to help reunite a separated family he met in July in Lviv. This time, though, he has a new mission: to deliver a cache of potassium iodide pills, an essential supplement in the event of a nuclear attack or nuclear reactor meltdown.
The possibility of radiation exposure is one of the greatest fears in Russia's brutal war, which has seen an estimated 200,000 casualties in the Ukrainian and Russian militaries — and many more among civilians.
Potassium iodide administered in the hours after radiation exposure can partially block the uptake of radioiodine by the thyroid, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It's no cure-all — but it can help against potential thyroid cancers resulting from radiation exposure, especially among children, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and others under age 40.
"You know what's coming to Ukraine," Dotson said. "It's naive not to anticipate radiation exposure."
Dr. Warren Schubert, a St. Paul plastic surgeon, will head to the region later this month on a medical mission Dotson helped coordinate.
Even more than a nuclear attack, Schubert is worried about a nuclear reactor meltdown, given disturbing reports at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is under Russian occupation.
He believes making potassium iodide available to Ukrainians is the bare minimum Americans can do — especially with a U.S. response he deems "appallingly poor." The total U.S. financial commitment to Ukraine leads the world, at about $54 billion, but proportionate to countries' wealth, U.S. contributions rank sixth behind countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
"It's got to be in people's medicine cabinets, not in a stockpile," Schubert said. "This doesn't protect you from all the other effects of radiation, or from getting incinerated, but it does protect young people's thyroid."
Years ago, long before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Dotson was at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and took the Never Again pledge. It's a commitment made by 100,000 museum visitors, including former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, to protect innocents from genocide.
That pledge led Dotson to help Syrian and Ukrainian refugees in what Dotson calls ongoing genocides.
"If you walk like a duck and talk like a duck, you're a duck," Dotson said. "The reality is, Putin is cornered. When you corner an animal, that's when they're most dangerous. He knows if he leaves power, he's dead. So the risk right now — we're at the Cuban Missile Crisis again. … It should be all hands on deck."
Dotson's contacts in Ukraine and at Ukraine's defense ministry have told him shelves there are emptied of potassium iodide. He hopes to bring 5,000 pills — he currently has six full duffel bags — but he's struggled getting financial donations through his GoFundMe.
People who know Dotson believe he'll persist.
Dr. Stacene Maroushek, a pediatrician at Hennepin Healthcare with a subspecialty in immigrant and refugee care, spent two weeks at a refugee transfer center on the Poland-Ukraine border in August. Much of her work there was getting medications for refugees who had to flee their homes; Dotson had connected Maroushek with NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief Nonprofit, the nongovernmental organization running the clinic.
"Howard's like an annoying little mosquito, a gnat, and he just buzzes around something until he gets his results," Maroushek said. "He's a wonderful man and very persistent, if nothing else. He's the squeaky wheel who gets the grease. We need people like that in world."
There's a common denominator in Dotson's missionary work: helping people recover from trauma. It's an ethos that flows from his favorite Bible verse, James 1:27: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."
"To preach the Gospel, you don't necessarily have to use words," Dotson said. "I'm not one of these who are trying to convert people as much as just care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger. If you're doing the work, it speaks for itself."