Before we begin, this isn't about any Sean Penn movies.
No, it's about this:
"I came home a hero, and now I’m a bum."
--Sam Ross, Jr.
It's Sam. But it could have been me. Or you. The reality is that it is thousands of others.
The April 5th edition of the New York Times carried this heartrending story of Sam Ross, a soldier shattered physically by an IED in Iraq. More tragically--if that's possible--is the fact that the memory of it has left him shattered internally.
Reporter Deborah Sontag provides the details:
...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.
For those of you unfamiliar with the area of southewest Pennsylvania, Sontag provides a brief thumbnail sketch:
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 old story of western Pennsylvania: the coal mines are gone. The steel mills are gone. College financial aid is a joke. Not many options remain for kids who want to get out and do something except the military.
According to Mapquest, Dunbar is 67 miles from my hometown. My first childhood home sat no more than 100 yards from Route 119. Sam Ross calls his father "grandpaps." So did I. We both grew up in John Murtha's Congressional district. I went to high school with dozens of boys like Sam Ross. Indeed, I was almost one of them--for a time I seriously considered joining the military. So did my brother when he graduated several years later. My family has a tradition of military service and it seemed like a logical option.
Thankfully, I didn't sign up. But others--many others--did. Some of them, I know, either are or have been in Iraq. Let me tell you about one whose story I heard:
I sat across from in him in a class about world literature. He was a very, very nice guy, respectful of others' opinions and always worked hard. He joined the army after graduation where, as I hear, they transformed a slightly chubby kid into a carved block of solid muscle. After 9/11 he was shipped to Afghanistan. Because he was so strong, he was assigned to carry a large, heavy caliber machine gun. (I'm sorry, I don't remember the exact name.) One day while his squad was going through the process of rooting out isolated cells of Taliban fighters from the numerous caves that dot the Afghan landscape, several came out to surrender. Or so it seemed until they pulled weapons and prepared to fire.
My ex-classmate fired first, though, and killed all of them. If I remember the story correctly, one of the Taliban fighters was even nearly cut in half by the big caliber bullets. I have a hard time believing any reasonable person would deny that my old schoolmate didn't do the right thing in that situation. That would come as cold comfort to him though--a western Pennsylvania farmboy who suddenly found himself on the other side of the world and forced to kill or be killed. He was so psychologically shaken by the event he had to be shipped back stateside for counseling. I haven't heard anything since then. I hope he's okay. I hope he's not like Sam.
Sam, who started out like this:
"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."
And ended up like this after a tragic encounter with an explosives:
...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.
And now, because of the unseen injuries that dwell somewhere deep inside his scarred psyche, he sits in jail. He was welcomed as a hero with parades. Now he is scorned.
Another depressing chapter in the old story. Rudyard Kipling knew this a long time ago.
You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country," when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
But Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!
Another country, another time. But nothing changes anywhere. Same verse, same as the first.
This story came home to me because I'm a sympathetic human being and such tragedy cannot but affect me. It really hit hard, however, because I saw so many other faces I know in Sam Ross. And what of you, gentle reader? How man others like Sam Ross are out there....from your very neighborhood? Are you a Maine Downeaster? A Kansas Jayhawker? An Ohio Buckeye? Are you from sunny Kal-ee-four-nee-ya? I promise you, nearly every locale in those four states and all forty-six others has a broken veteran or a shattered family created by this war.
How many physically and/or mentally destroyed men and women have this war created? And what of their children? Or the children of those who do not return without being draped in a flag? Sometimes, I can't help but think this war will create an entire generation of Pinks:
Daddy's flown across the ocean
Leaving just a memory
Snapshot in the family album
Daddy what else did you leave for me?
Daddy, what'd'ja leave behind for me?!?
All in all it was just a brick in the wall.
All in all it was all just bricks in the wall.
Certainly, I don't mean to paint with too broad a brush here. Obviously most veterans won't come back and suffer Sam Ross' fate. Probably even the majority of those who have physical and mental issues stemming from their time in combat won't end up jailed and charged with attempted murder.
But, leaving aside this extreme, what do they likely have to look forward to?
Army researchers saw alcohol misuse rise from 13 percent among soldiers to 21 percent one year after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, underscoring the continuing stress of deployment for some troops.
In post-deployment reassessment data completed in July, researchers also saw soldiers with anger and aggression issues increase from 11 percent to 22 percent after deployment. Those planning to divorce their spouse rose from 9 percent to 15 percent after time spent in the combat zone.
Divorced, abusing alcohol (or, like Sam Ross, alcohol and narcotics)...what then? What comes after that?
If past history is any indication for hundreds of thousands, it will be this:
The U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says the nation's homeless veterans....are single, most come from poor, disadvantaged communities, 45% suffer from mental illness, and half have substance abuse problems.
Although accurate numbers are impossible to come by -- no one keeps national records on homeless veterans -- the VA estimates that nearly 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. And nearly 400,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year. Conservatively, one out of every three homeless men who is sleeping in a doorway, alley or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served this country.
I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know. But that this is allowed to happen is an obscenity. Like I said, the story of Sam Ross jarred me very, very badly. I knew all of this in an abstract way, but it was brought home to me in searing fashion. I do not believe in a deity, but no aphorism I can think of sums things up better than, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
We call ourselves progressives and we are. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that we share a common belief in the power of society, that the less fortunate must be helped, and that what happens to one of us happens to all of us.
America's national motto is "E Pluribus Unum." Roughly translated, I believe it means "From many, one."
I mistitled this diary. It is not "I am Sam."
It is "We Are Sam."