Published: April 5, 2007
DUNBAR, Pa. — Blinded and disabled on the 54th day of the war in Iraq, Sam Ross returned home to a rousing parade that outdid anything this small, depressed Appalachian town had ever seen. “Sam’s parade put Dunbar on the map,” his grandfather said.
Now Mr. Ross, 24, faces charges of attempted homicide, assault and arson in the burning of a family trailer in February. Nobody in the trailer was hurt, but Mr. Ross fought the assistant fire chief who reported to the scene, and later threatened a state trooper with his prosthetic leg, which was taken away from him, according to the police.
The police locked up Mr. Ross in the Fayette County prison. In his cell, he tried to hang himself with a sheet. After he was cut down, Mr. Ross was committed to a state psychiatric hospital, where, he said in a recent interview there, he is finally getting — and accepting — the help he needs, having spiraled downward in the years since the welcoming fanfare faded.
“I came home a hero, and now I’m a bum,” Mr. Ross, whose full name is Salvatore Ross Jr., said.
The story of Sam Ross has the makings of a ballad, with its heart-rending arc from hardscrabble childhood to decorated war hero to hardscrabble adulthood. His effort to create a future for himself by enlisting in the Army exploded in the desert during a munitions disposal operation in Baghdad. He was 20.
He was also on his own. Mr. Ross, who is estranged from his mother and whose father is serving a life sentence for murdering his stepmother, does not have the family support that many other severely wounded veterans depend on. Various relatives have stepped in at various times, but Mr. Ross, embittered by a difficult childhood and by what the war cost him, has had a push-pull relationship with those who sought to assist him.
Several people have taken a keen interest in Mr. Ross, among them Representative John P. Murtha, the once-hawkish Democrat from Pennsylvania. When Mr. Murtha publicly turned against the war in Iraq in 2005, he cited the shattered life of Mr. Ross, one of his first constituents to be seriously wounded, as a pivotal influence.
Mr. Murtha’s office assisted Mr. Ross in negotiating the military health care bureaucracy. Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit group based in Massachusetts, built him a beautiful log cabin. Military doctors carefully tended Mr. Ross’s physical wounds: the loss of his eyesight, of his left leg below the knee and of his hearing in one ear, among other problems.
But that help was not enough to save Mr. Ross from the loneliness and despair that engulfed him. Overwhelmed by severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including routine nightmares of floating over Iraq that ended with a blinding boom, he “self-medicated” with alcohol and illegal drugs. He finally hit rock bottom when he landed in the state psychiatric hospital, where he is, sadly, thrilled to be.
“Seventeen times of trying to commit suicide, I think it’s time to give up,” Mr. Ross said, speaking in the forensic unit of the Mayview State Hospital in Bridgeville. “Lots of them were screaming out cries for help, and nobody paid attention. But finally somebody has.”
Finding a Way Out
Fayette County in southwestern Pennsylvania, once a prosperous coal mining center, is now one of the poorest counties in the state. The bucolic but ramshackle town of Dunbar sits off State Route 119 near the intersection marked by the Butchko Brothers junkyard.
Past the railroad tracks and not far up Hardy Hill Road, the blackened remains of Mr. Ross’s hillside trailer are testament to his disintegration. The Support our Troops ribbon is charred, the No Trespassing sign unfazed.
Mr. Ross lived in that trailer, where his father shot his stepmother, at several points in his life, including alone after he returned from Iraq. Its most recent tenant, his younger brother, Thomas, was in jail when the fire occurred.
Many in Mr. Ross’s large, quarreling family are on one side of the law or the other, prison guards or prisoners, police officers or probationers. Their internal feuds are so commonplace that family reunions have to be carefully plotted with an eye to who has a protective order out against whom, Mr. Ross’s 25-year-old cousin, Joseph Lee Ross, joked.
Sam Ross’s childhood was not easy. “Sam’s had a rough life from the time he was born,” his grandfather, Joseph Frank Ross, said. His parents fought, sometimes with guns, until they separated and his mother moved out of state. Mr. Ross bore some of the brunt of the turmoil.
“When that kid was little, the way he got beat around, it was awful,” his uncle, Joseph Frank Ross Jr., a prison guard, said.
When he was just shy of 12, Mr. Ross moved in with his father’s father, who for a time was married to his mother’s mother. The grandfather-grandson relationship was and continues to be tumultuous.
“I idolized my grandpaps, but he’s an alcoholic and he mentally abuses people,” Mr. Ross said.
His grandfather, 72, a former coal miner who sells used cars, said, “I’m not an alcoholic. I can quit. I just love the taste of it.”
The grandfather, who still keeps an A-plus English test by Mr. Ross on his refrigerator, said his grandson did well in school, even though he cared most about his wrestling team, baseball, hunting and fishing. Mr. Ross graduated in June 2001.
“Sammy wanted me to pay his way to college, but I’m not financially fixed to do that,” his grandfather said.
Feeling that Fayette County was a dead end, Mr. Ross said he had wanted to find a way out after he graduated. One night in late 2001, he said, he saw “one of those ‘Be all you can be’ ads” on television. The next day, he went to the mall and enlisted, getting a $3,000 bonus for signing up to be a combat engineer.
From his first days of basic training, Mr. Ross embraced the military as his salvation. “It was like, ‘Wow, man, I was born for the Army,’ ” he said. “I was an adrenaline junkie. I was super, super fit. I craved discipline. I wanted adventure. I was patriotic. I loved the bonding. And there was nothing that I was feared of. I mean, man, I was made for war.”
In early 2003, Private Ross, who earned his jump wings as a parachutist, shipped off to Kuwait with the 82nd Airborne Division, which pushed into Iraq with the invasion in March. The early days of the war were heady for many soldiers like Private Ross, who reveled in the appreciation of Iraqis. He was assigned to an engineer squad given the task of rounding up munitions.
On May 18, Private Ross and his squad set out to de-mine an area in south Baghdad. Moving quickly, as they did on such operations, he collected about 15 UXO’s, or unexploded ordnances, in a pit. Somehow, something — he never learned what — caused them to detonate.
“The initial blast hit me and I went numb and everything went totally silent,” he said. “Then I hear people start hollering, ‘Ross! Ross! Ross!’ It started getting louder, louder, louder. My whole body was mangled. I was spitting up blood. I faded in and out. I was bawling my eyes out, saying, ‘Please don’t let me go; don’t let me go.’ ”
A Casualty of War
When his relatives first saw Mr. Ross at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, he was in a coma. “That boy was dead,” his grandfather said. “We was looking at a corpse lying in that bed.”
As he lay unconscious, the Army discharged him — one year, four months and 18 days after he enlisted, by his calculation. After 31 days, Mr. Ross came off the respirator. Groggily but insistently, he pointed to his eyes and then to his leg. An aunt gingerly told him he was blind and an amputee. He cried for days, he said.
It was during Mr. Ross’s stay at Walter Reed that Representative Murtha, a former Marine colonel, first met his young constituent and presented him with a Purple Heart.
From the start of the war, Mr. Murtha said in an interview, he made regular, painful excursions to visit wounded soldiers. Gradually, those visits, combined with his disillusionment about the Bush administration’s management of the war, led him to call in late 2005 for the troops to be brought home in six months.
“Sam Ross had an impact on me,” Mr. Murtha said. “Eventually, I just felt that we had gotten to a point where we were talking so much about winning the war itself — and it couldn’t be won militarily — that we were forgetting about the results of the war on individuals like Sam.”
Over the next three years, Mr. Ross underwent more than 20 surgical procedures, including: “Five on my right eye, one on my left eye, two or three when they cut my left leg off, three or four on my right leg, a couple on my throat, skin grafts, chest tubes and, you know, one where they gutted me from belly button to groin” to remove metal fragments from his intestines.
But, although he was prescribed psychiatric medication, he never received in-patient treatment for the post-traumatic stress disorder that was diagnosed at Walter Reed. And, in retrospect he, like his relatives, said he believes he should have been put in an intensive program soon after his urgent physical injuries were addressed.
“They should have given him treatment before they let him come back into civilization,” his grandfather said.
A Hero’s Welcome
The parade, on a sunny day in late summer 2003, was spectacular. Hundreds of flag-waving locals lined the streets. Mr. Ross had just turned 21. Wearing his green uniform and burgundy beret, he rode in a Jeep, accompanied by other veterans and the Connellsville Area Senior High School Marching Band. The festivities included bagpipers, Civil War re-enactors and a dunking pool.
“It wasn’t the medals on former Army Pfc. Sam Ross’s uniform that reflected his courage yesterday,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote. “It was the Dunbar native’s poise as he greeted well-wishers and insisted on sharing attention with other soldiers that proved the grit he’ll need to recover from extensive injuries he suffered in Iraq.”
For a little while, “it was joy joy, happiness happiness,” Mr. Ross said. He felt the glimmerings of a new kind of potential within himself, and saw no reason why he could not go on to college, even law school. Then the black moods, the panic attacks, the irritability set in. He was dogged by chronic pain; fragments of metal littered his body.
Mr. Ross said he was “stuck in denial” about his disabilities. The day he tried to resume a favorite pastime, fishing, hit him hard. Off-balance on the water, it came as a revelation that, without eyesight, he did not know where to cast his rod. He threw his equipment in the water and sold his boat.
“I just gave up,” he said. “I give up on everything.”
About a year after he was injured, Mr. Ross enrolled in an in-patient program for blind veterans in Chicago. He learned the Braille alphabet, but his fingers were too numb from embedded shrapnel to read, he said. He figured that he did not have much else to learn since he had been functioning blind for a year. He left the program early.
Similarly, Mr. Ross repeatedly declined outpatient psychiatric treatment at the veterans hospital in Pittsburgh, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. He said he felt that people at the hospital had disrespected him.
After living with relatives, Mr. Ross withdrew from the world into the trailer on the hill in 2004. That year, he got into a dispute with his grandfather over old vehicles on the property, resolving it by setting them on fire. His run-ins with local law enforcement, which did not occur before he went to Iraq, the Fayette County sheriff said, had begun.
But his image locally had not yet been tarnished. In early 2005, Mr. Murtha held a second Purple Heart ceremony for Mr. Ross at a Fayette County hospital “to try to show him how much affection we had for him and his sacrifice,” Mr. Murtha said.
A local newspaper article about Mr. Ross’s desire to build himself a house came to the attention of Homes for Our Troops.
“He’s a great kid; he really is,” said Kirt Rebello, the group’s director of projects and veterans affairs. “Early on, even before he was injured, the kid had this humongous deck stacked against him in life. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to help him.”
Mr. Ross, who had received a $100,000 government payment for his catastrophic injury, bought land adjacent to his grandfather’s. Mr. Rebello asked Mr. Ross whether he might prefer to move to somewhere with more services and opportunities. But Mr. Ross said that Dunbar’s winding roads were implanted in his psyche, “that he could see the place in his mind,” Mr. Rebello said.
A Life Falls Apart
In May 2005, Mr. Ross broke up with a girlfriend and grew increasingly depressed. He felt oppressively idle, he said. One day, he tacked a suicide note to the door of his trailer and hitched a ride to a trail head, disappearing into the woods. A daylong manhunt ensued.
Mr. Ross fell asleep in the woods that night, waking up with the sun on his face, which he took to be a sign that God wanted him to live. When he was found, he was taken to a psychiatric ward and released after a few weeks…
“If that boy would have come home and accepted what happened to him, that boy never would have wanted for anything in Dunbar,” his grandfather said. “If he had accepted that he’s wounded and he’s blinded, you know? He’s not the only one that happened to. There’s hundreds of boys like him.”
Some sympathy began to erode in the town, too. “There’s pro and con on him,” a local official said. “Some people don’t even believe he’s totally blind.”
After overdosing first on heroin and then on methadone last fall, Mr. Ross said, he quit consuming illegal drugs, replacing them with drinking until he blacked out.
Mr. Ross relied on his brother, Thomas, when he suffered panic attacks. When Thomas was jailed earlier this year, Mr. Ross reached out to older members of his family. In early February, his uncle, Joseph Ross Jr., persuaded him to be driven several hours to the veterans’ hospital in Coatesville to apply for its in-patient program for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Due to the severity of his case, they accepted him on the spot and gave him a bed date for right after Valentine’s Day,” his uncle said. “Then he wigged out five days before he was supposed to go there.”
It started when his brother’s girlfriend, Monica Kuhns, overheard a phone call in which he was arranging to buy antidepressants. She thought it was a transaction to buy cocaine, he said, and he feared that she would tell his sister and brother.
After downing several beers, Mr. Ross, in a deranged rage, went to his old trailer, where Ms. Kuhns was living with her young son, he said.
“He started pounding on the door,” said Ms. Hall, who accompanied him. “He went in and threatened to burn the place down. Me and Monica didn’t actually think he was going to do it. But then he pulled out the lighter.”
Having convinced himself that the trailer — a source of so much family misery — needed to be destroyed, Mr. Ross set a pile of clothing on fire. The women and the child fled. When a volunteer firefighter showed up, Mr. Ross attacked and choked him, according to a police complaint.
A judge set bail at $250,000. In the Fayette County prison, Mr. Ross got “totally out of hand,” the sheriff, Gary Brownfield, said. Mr. Ross’s lawyer, James Geibig, said the situation was a chaotic mess.
“It was just a nightmare,” Mr. Geibig said. “First the underlying charges — attempted homicide, come on — were blown out of proportion. Then bail is set sky high, straight cash. They put him in a little cell, in isolation, and barely let him shower. Things went from bad to worse until they found him hanging.”
Now Mr. Geibig’s goal is to get Mr. Ross sentenced into the post-traumatic stress disorder program he was supposed to attend.
“He does not need to be in jail,” Mr. Geibig said. “He has suffered enough. I’m not a bleeding heart, but his is a pretty gut-wrenching tale. And at the end, right before this incident, he sought out help. It didn’t arrive in time. But it’s not too late, I hope, for Sam Ross to have some kind of future.”