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Double amputee motivated to help daughters, others

Jason Ross discovers life after the Marines in house built by Gary Sinise Foundation

Rick Monroe

Special to the Village News

The Jason Ross story is of an explosion, pink mist, a vision from God, a dad’s love for his girls, divorce, the nation’s response to a Marine’s tragedy, and parents who continue to stand by their injured son’s side. Mix in some humor, and it makes for great movie material.

In 2001, Jason went from high school to the Marines via delayed enlistment. He had the summer off after graduation and, on Sept. 11, he was at the military processing station just outside the San Jose Airport, waiting to catch a morning flight to boot camp in San Diego. There was a commotion around a large television, and yes, that will be a day to always remember – 9/11. His flight was cancelled, and his departure was delayed until Sept. 17.

Upon graduation from MCRD, his MOS (military occupation specialty) was avionics (aviation technology). “The math was tough, not exactly in my wheelhouse,” Jason said. They switched his code to finance – “go figure, more math,” he said. After duty in Okinawa, Japan, he was sent to 29 Palms for two years and he seriously considered leaving the service. He was 21 years old, a corporal in rank, and didn’t see a future doing desk work for the Marines.

However, just as reenlistment time approached, the opportunity came up for him to transfer to Explosive Ordnance Disposal. He was assigned to the EOD school for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, noted for its high attrition rate. “It sounded like fun,” he recalled.

After becoming an EOD tech, he was given another duty assignment to Okinawa. His first tour in Afghanistan, followed in 2009 and then by another in 2011. In between he was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The incident occurred on March 7, 2011, when Ross was leaving an Afghanistan village. He was on a two-man EOD Team, attached to a Fire Team known as “grunts” (the guys you want around if you’re out in the field). The EOD Team lead was a gunny sergeant, and he was the man right behind Jason. The first three went across and then Jason, and he triggered the IED (improvised explosive device) that propelled him into the air. The blast was so great that it immediately tore off both his legs and threw him up into the air. The “Gunny” was about 3 meters behind Jason and it knocked him down and gave him a severe concussion. None of the others were injured. Jason said, he was fortunate the explosives he carried in his backpack didn’t detonate. “Then, all that would be left of me would be that pink mist.”

He was lucky to survive. The IED was a 10-pound device, enough to disable an armored vehicle. Indeed, doctors at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. called him the most severely injured serviceman they had treated up to that point, with less than a 2% chance of surviving. He was a miracle.

Ross not only lost his legs, but his pelvis broke in five places, his right arm was severely cut through the ulnar nerve, both hands were broken, and he had a collapsed lung and concussion. When he hit the ground, he recalled being given a shot of morphine and trying to direct people around him. Fortunately, he had the best Corpsman working on him and then, out of the blue, came the medevac British helicopter. As they got him on to the medevac flight, he told one of the attendees that he was having a hard time breathing and that was the last thing he remembered until waking up in the U.S.

From the field, they took him to Camp Leatherneck to get him somewhat stabilized, then on to Camp Bagram for more stabilization. Because his injuries were so great, they knew they had to get him to Landstuhl, Germany. During all of this, his heart stopped twice, as well as dealing with other internal injuries. It was a miracle he was alive.

That’s when his parents, George and Linda, were called at their home in Livermore, in the Bay Area. George, an Air Force veteran, was getting ready to leave for his first day on a new job.

“I was in the kitchen,” the dad recalled. “It shook me, and I went to the garage to get Linda, because I wouldn’t be able to repeat it to her. We were told Jason lost both legs and had life threatening injuries.”

Linda was in denial at first. “He told me he always wore his bomb suit whenever he went outside the wire,” she said. “I recall saying, ‘This must be a mix-up. Jason has a birthmark on his ankle. You need to check.” (She didn’t mean it as humor. Jason was wearing his personal protective equipment, but they couldn’t check his ankles.)

Ross’ parents were told to get to Washington, D.C. ASAP so they could connect to a flight to Germany to see Jason.

Upon arriving at the nation’s capital, they received new passports in about an hour from the State Department and minutes later were heading in a van to Reagan International Airport. However, there was a change of plans. They were redirected to nearby Walter Reed National Medical Center, where their son would be arriving.

When Jason awoke at Walter Reed, a week later, he recalled seeing hospital lights. “That’s a good sign,” he thought. “I didn’t know how bad the injuries were, if I had two, one or no legs. I looked under the sheet on one side and there was very little left. And when I looked to the right there was nothing.”

Whether it was positive thinking or a sense of humor, he remembers thinking, “At least I have my hands.”

By this time, George and Linda had been there for eight days, offering their love and support. Jason was in an induced coma, and they would go in every day and simply stay with him and talk to him – sometimes singing songs.

“That’s when we committed to being Jason’s full-time caregivers,” George said. He learned that would mean making major decisions for their son.

Dr. Debra Malone, Jason’s primary caregiver, contacted George, a few days after Jason was conscious and said that they needed to know what to do about Jason’s left leg, or what little there was left of it. Leaving the little would actually make it more difficult for him to get around so it was decided to remove it and he would then have a hip disarticulation.

“We were on edge for weeks, wondering each day if this would be his last,” Linda recalled.

During his stay at the hospital – March 10 to Oct. 31, 2011, Jason had undergone more than 230 surgeries and was given another four or five units of blood, in addition to the 63 units he received while in Afghanistan and Germany. (A body contains about 16 units.) His weight dropped to 90 pounds, and for weeks, doctors were unsure if Jason would survive.

Once he started to stabilize medically, Jason was given psychological screening. When he tired of being quizzed with repeated basic questions about dates and other details, Jason’s humor kicked in with his answer to what year it was – 1729. That turned some heads, but the consensus was that his head was fine.

They learned his hearing was OK when a doctor came to his room and yelled, “Good morning, how are you feeling?” She raised her voice expecting hearing loss. Irritated, Ross yelled back, “What are you shouting for?”

The hospital stay was work, but Jason found ways to make it fun.

Another time he was exercising on a prone cart, on his stomach, and could only see up about 3 feet off the floor and only about 12 feet in front of him. He would race through the halls, but one day had to stop when seeing a group wearing boots. “Excuse me gentlemen,” he exclaimed, “can you please get out of my way?” A pair of the boots belonged to Gen. James F. Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps. They actually had a nice short chat, then Jason was back on his way.

Early in his hospital stay, when a nurse asked if he wanted a sheet for his bed, he replied, “Just bring me a pillowcase.” Later, when a new nurse was asked to bring a pillowcase, she wanted to please and found a huge pillowcase. Jason took the pillowcase and held it up, saying, “Hey look, you brought me a sleeping bag!” The new nurse was very embarrassed but soon learned to appreciate Jason’s humor.

President Obama visited Jason on four occasions, not for a photo-shoot, but as a caring person, Jason remembered.

George and Linda also learned about Jason’s encounter with God. It may have occurred when his heart stopped in Afghanistan.

“Jason experienced a God-moment after the explosion,” his dad explained. “Jason was still up in the air, from the blast when he blacked out, for just a moment. Then, he was going up on something like an escalator or people mover with mirrors on both sides, so he noticed he was in his full military dress uniform, with his legs, moving toward a door or window that opened.”

“He recalled seeing his two girls and then saying, ‘God, I don’t want to die. My girls need me.’ The next thing he knew, he was falling on the ground with his hands smoldering from the explosion.”

Jason isn’t vocal about this dream or vision, but said the message was clear.

“God wanted me to raise my girls and to help others,” the Marine said.

Jason and his family believe God intervened.

“I believe in God as a higher power, but don’t push religion,” he said. “I definitely see how He helped out in my life.”

Jason’s parents and children attend Riverview Church in Bonsall. Jason will attend occasionally but has a problem with crowds of people, and there are always hundreds of people there, so he would rather stay home.

Jason and his wife divorced in 2014. They have two girls. Stacy was 2 at the time of the accident and Jackie only 7 months (born 5 days before his final deployment).

“It was a messy divorce,” Jason said. “It seems like all military divorces are, but we’re civil now. The court ruled for a 50-50 split on time with the kids. My ex-wife remarried and lives in Temecula, where the kids go to school.”

“The kids never really knew their dad before the accident,” said Linda. “I think that’s a blessing.”

However, Stacy made an impression at Walter Reed.

“She doesn’t remember it now, but Stacy would walk the halls at the hospital, telling everyone, ‘When my dad dies, he’s going to get his legs back in heaven,’” George recalled.

“My kids mean everything now,” said Jason. “I have my good days and my bad days. The oldest is sometimes a bit rebellious, but they are typical pre-teens. They’re really good kids.”

The girls are now 13 and 11. He’s noticed his older daughter has developed some of the ‘woke’ attitude from her school.

“I challenge her about what she says, because later in life she’s going to have to deal with someone with different opinions, and this will toughen her up. I can see her telling them, ‘My dad’s worse than you,’” Jason said.

“I want to give them the best chance to be successful, teaching them about the real world without scaring the heck out of them,” he added.

Linda is proud of her son’s relationship with his daughters. “The girls will see things one way and can maybe make blunders, but he has a way of talking with them, sometimes for hours.”

He has also reached out to fellow service members dealing with the loss of one or more limbs. His most common message is that the first six months suck, but things will get better. He laughed that his message to an Army specialist, whose leg was amputated below the knee, was a little more abrupt. “Why are you complaining?” Jason said. “It’s just a leg and you’re lucky. You’ll be walking in six weeks.”

After Walter Reed, Jason was sent to Balboa Naval Hospital for out-patient treatment in San Diego. Jason still experienced pain in his pelvis and bone spurs from where the remainder of the leg continued to try to heal itself. He had one bone spur removed at Walter Reed that was 10 pounds, George said.

It was at Balboa Hospital where Jason met Gary Sinese, the actor who played Lt. Dan in the Forrest Gump movie. This is a time when the family was having difficulty finding suitable housing. They wanted to find something with hallways to accommodate Jason’s wheelchair, among other special needs.

Jason served 13 years in the Marines, including two after the injury. He was told he could remain in the service, but he said he didn’t want to take a position an able-bodied service member could do.

Gary Sinise has become an advocate for veterans and through the Gary Sinise Foundation has coordinated construction of dozens of homes for severely wounded veterans.

“At that time I wasn’t aware of what he did, but he asked me if I would like them to build a ‘smart home’ and I was blown away (humor!),” Jason recalled. “I said, sure, that would be so awesome.”

George and Linda were also excited. The property was selected on 2.5 acres on Ramona Drive in Fallbrook. The family moved there in 2015, as the 22nd home built and paid for by the foundation. The 4,100 square foot home, with five bedrooms and five baths, allows the Ross family to function well together.

According to the Gary Sinise Foundation, “The simple tasks of everyday life – climbing stairs, reaching a high shelf, driving to the grocery store – are easy to take for granted. Because they’re done without a second thought, it’s impossible to imagine an inability to perform them. But that’s often the reality for our severely wounded heroes, where basic tasks are impossible obstacles, and the enduring ambition of rehabilitation is to achieve a semblance of normalcy.”

Jason said his appreciation for the foundation is tremendous, but that he couldn’t handle things without his parents.

“Mom and Dad are a tremendous help,” Jason said. “They put their lives on hold for me. Mom had her own daycare and preschool at home in Livermore, and Dad never went back to his new job after he had been laid off.”

Jason can only handle up to four hours at a time before resting. Otherwise, there could be damage to his pelvic area, his dad said.

George and Linda help with dinner, their grandkids and the dogs, Gracie, a German-shepherd, and Kojak, a Shepherd mix.

Jason is their third of four sons. The oldest is a special needs child with cerebral palsy and Dandy-Walker syndrome, who they worked with to be on his own. Now it’s Jason’s turn.

“It’s all about family,” George said. “It’s so important.

His future is brighter than we expected,” said Linda. “Just a few years ago he passed his driver's test and can have more independence. It’s like cutting strings.”

Jason was recently presented a 2021 Chevy Silverado mobility-equipped vehicle as part of the Wounded Warriors Family Support and EOD Wounded Warriors Foundation.

Jason enjoys his truck and playing sled hockey in San Diego.

Jason said he likes Fallbrook because it reminds him of Livermore, where he grew up, in the Bay area in the 1980s, with its open fields, farmland, a real country feeling – plus Camp Pendleton being so close. He spent a lot of time at the base and still has buddies in the Marine Corps.

The family had a big “Five Alive” party for their Fallbrook HOA members, family and friends in March 2016, a year after moving to their home. Plans for a 10-year celebration were cancelled because of COVID-19 but they are looking at “Alive Eleven” in March 2022.

 

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