Soldier Blinded in Iraq Still Optimistic

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Sam Ross Jr. (search) has three laundry hampers in the bedroom of his sparsely furnished trailer. One for jeans, one for T-shirts and the other for underwear. They're always in the same place and same order.

In the family room, he also has a routine: He keeps the 60-inch TV on so he can listen to the History Channel or "Jeopardy!," his favorite show.

When he's in the kitchen, he's extra careful around the stove. He's burned himself several times since returning last year from Iraq blinded by shrapnel from a land mine explosion.

Doctors thought he wouldn't survive. But he hung on, and today the 22-year-old former high school wrestler smiles often as he talks about his ability to go on with his life — often alone, with no sight and a prosthetic leg that starts 6 inches below his left knee.

He has approached his blindness as both a challenge and an opportunity, a chance to make a new start for someone from a troubled family in a small town in rural southwestern Pennsylvania.

He wants to build a house with help from business owners in the community and plans to go to college. He said he thinks he deserves better than the old trailer in the woods where he lives now.

Why is he optimistic despite losing his sight?

"I don't know," he says. "Never having nothing my whole life, maybe."

Kevlar helmets and vests have improved the survival rate for soldiers fighting in Iraq (search) and Afghanistan. Blast wounds are being treated in high numbers, along with many serious combat-related eye injuries.

"Troops have traditionally not wanted to wear eye protection because all of it might in some way limit their vision," said Col. Thomas Ward, consultant to the U.S. surgeon general in ophthalmology. "Early on, I don't think people really appreciated how vulnerable the eye was."

Nine percent of the soldiers wounded in Vietnam (search) had eye injuries. That number rose to 13 percent in the Persian Gulf War, and anecdotally appears to have risen in Iraq, Ward said.

At the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where about 90 percent of the Army's wounded are treated at some point, 215 eye injuries have been recorded since the start of the Iraq war, Ward said. The figure includes 34 totally blinded in one eye, and four soldiers totally blinded in both eyes.

The lucky ones have had pieces of metal or glass removed from their eyes. Others, suffering direct blasts to the face, had eyes blown out.

Ross, a combat engineer with the 82nd Airborne Division, was wounded on May 18, 2003, while disposing of munitions near Baghdad.

On his way to a disposal pit, he was cradling a mine in a sand-filled shovel when there was an explosion.

What went wrong? He doesn't know.

He may have hit the mine accidentally with the butt of a rifle slung over his other arm. Or his movements may have been too jarring for the fragile explosives.

He doesn't know.

Ross was blown into the air, shards of metal and wire cutting into his legs, arms and eyes.

He called for help, wondering what was taking the medical helicopter so long. He expected the worst.

"I said my last words and came to peace that I was going to die," he says. He chooses to keep those last words private now.

The shrapnel blew off the side of his right eye, which is now filled with scar tissue. In his left eye, the retina detached, permanently damaging the nerves.

"I remember seeing a black hole," he says. "The pain was so excruciating, my body just went numb."

He was left with some light perception in his left eye, but he keeps his eyelids mostly closed because it's more comfortable.

The military rushed Ross back to the United States within days of the explosion so relatives could see him alive one last time. He was given only 72 hours to live.

Ross spent more than a month in a coma at Walter Reed. He's had more than a dozen surgeries, at least four on his eyes.

During six weeks at the Chicago-based Hines Blind Rehabilitation Center, a facility to help veterans, Ross learned how to use a cane to get around and keep himself oriented. Ross also learned to rely on his other senses.

The process has been helped, he says, by the fact that he remembers what it's like to see and can visualize many situations.

"I know what a can of corn looks like," he says.

Still, there are many challenges at home in Dunbar, about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Ross shares his old beige trailer with his dog, a golden retriever named Diesel. The home belonged to his father, who has been in jail since 1999; Ross hasn't seen his mother in years.

Cousins, an aunt and a girlfriend, Jenna, have helped him get around.

But because they all work during the day, he often stays alone in his mobile home, which sits in woods near the end of a gravel road, with few homes nearby.

Dozens of calls have not turned up any group that provides transportation for the blind in his community. Once, Ross says he walked a couple of miles into town in the rain because he was hungry and couldn't wait for help.

He says he's proud of having served, and eagerly tells stories about his days in Iraq — traveling from city to city in long convoys, taking part in nearly 24-hour street patrols. He smiles when remembering playing baseball with other soldiers in Karbala.

In language full of acronyms, he explains in detail how mines work. He says he never assumed he'd return home safely.

"You have to realize that death is imminent. It's part of the battlefield," Ross says. "You have to accept it and realize you're already dead."

Battles of a different kind face him now.

He's been dogged by creditors seeking about $9,800 from a medical procedure he underwent on his eyes after returning home. The Army was supposed to pay the bill, but officials told Ross they were not paid because of a clerical error. While the Army sorted it out, the hospital turned the issue over to a collection agency.

"It's all paperwork, thousands of dollars hanging out there," said Ross, adding that he's confident it will get worked out sooner or later.

Ross would also like to shed some of the weight he's put on from being so inactive. He was a muscular 135 pounds before the war but now weighs about 170.

The town threw him and other soldiers a parade in August 2003. Now he's trying to see if businesses will donate money to help him achieve his goal of buying a house adapted for the handicapped.

"That's when I can go to college," says Ross, who believes if he gets the chance, he can become a lawyer.

He's gotten thousands of cards from well-wishers, including a poem about heroes that sits on the fireplace mantel.

Beside the poem are two pictures of Ross and several buddies taken before he was deployed. He smiles, eyes wide open.