UPDATE: Injured local soldier has returned home
DUNBAR -- Sam Ross is home.
He was critically injured May 18 in Baghdad, while serving as a private in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne, 307th Engineering Division from Fort Bragg, N.C.
He spent two months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; arrived in Pittsburgh Saturday, where he spent several days in a VA hospital there, before arriving at his aunt Libby Ross' home in Dunbar.
The 20-year-old soldier faces at least four more surgeries and months of rehabilitation.
Following the explosion, Ross, who is now blind, had his left leg amputated halfway to the knee, has lost hearing in his left ear and has hundreds of pieces of shrapnel in his body.
But he's happy to be home.
Ross spoke by telephone from his aunt's house Tuesday night.
"I'll be home on a regular basis, doing therapy and going back and forth at Pittsburgh. I've got four more surgeries, for a cracked skull, cracked sinus, left ear. But I'm home, it's a lot nicer to be home, to be able to watch TV and be with family."
Ross says that he can see slightly. "With my left eye, I can see the change in brightness in the room. I can see motion from the shadow when I wave my hand."
Ross had surgery for a detached retina and says that he may never see completely again. "It takes four to six months, a year, for my eyes to get out of the shock."
In September, Ross will travel to Chicago for several weeks at the Hines Blind Rehabilitation Center.
Ross remembers everything about the explosion that almost cost him his life.
His unit had been in Baghdad for two or three weeks before the accident.
"We got into Baghdad, we're engineers. Our task is engineer-related. There were UXOs, unexploded ordinances. We were put in charge of it and were out cleaning up a field. Some children were in the area and there was still some live ordinance there.
"We're real careful when we pick them up. We pick them up with a shovel, put them in a hole and blow them all up at the same time. Some freak accident of God caused them to ignite; it blew me about 30 feet in the air."
An Iraqi civilian who was helping also was wounded. He's fine, says Ross.
Ross' body shielded his squad leader from the blast.
"Staff Sgt. Steven Statts was 30 to 40 feet away and felt shrapnel flying by. He wasn't hit," says Ross.
"My squad leader, like a supervisor, makes sure everything is safe," he explains. "My squad leader was 30-40 feet away. I shielded him from the blast.
"We were doing everything by the book," he continues. "My platoon sergeant got a reprimand, just because the Army requires it. They got my side of the story. It was an accident, that's all it was."
An infantryman jumped off his truck and applied a tourniquet to Ross' severely damaged left leg. "It saved my life. I'm going to meet him soon," says Ross. "If they would have waited another 10 minutes, I would have bled to death right there. I lost almost all the blood in my body."
Because of his severe injuries, doctors heavily sedated Ross.
"I remember the whole incident until they put me on a helicopter to Kuwait," says Ross. "I was drugged until a week before the Fourth of July. I don't remember much until June 27 or so."
When Ross returned to the United States in May, he was honorably discharged as a private first class. He served for one year, four months and three days. In addition to the Purple Heart, Ross received an Army Commendation medal.
His former guardian thinks Ross should have received a Bronze Star for blocking his sergeant from the blast.
"His life has been changed forever," says Sandy Murphy. "Sam was in that field, protecting little children."
Murphy and her companion, Joe Ross, Sam's grandfather, became his guardians in 1994, when Sam was in sixth grade. "I didn't have Sammy, but I helped raise him. I love Sam, I've always been proud of Sam."
Murphy visited him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"Sammy told me, 'You are the only mother that I ever had,' and the last thing Sam told me was he loved me," Murphy says.
Libby Ross received an e-mail from Ross just before the accident. "He was so excited to be coming home soon. 'Tell everybody I'm doing fine and will be home soon,' he wrote."
Sam Ross is home and now says, "I've got a long way to go."
He has lost 50 pounds and will have to learn to walk again.
Because of the inner ear damage, he has problems balancing. "I'm also going to be learning how to function normally around the house. Being blind is a whole other part of the rehabilitation."
Ross says that the pain is not bad, but he has "good days and bad days. Overall, I'm pretty good. I still get a lot of confusion, not being able to see. It's a different world."
The Dunbar community is planning a homecoming for Ross sometime in August. Further details will be announced.
Ross doesn't want the attention for himself.
"I appreciate everything that the community and people I don't know have done, for the support of my family and my aunt," he says, but "don't forget the other guys who are over there. There are other people who have died. I've got a lot of friends over there and I'm not going to forget those guys."