Have you ever heard a story and thought about how that person got through their life with the extreme circumstances they faced? There are many fantastic stories out there, but sometimes one of them grabs your soul. Stories grab your soul when we connect with them in some way. For some people, a simple tug of a heart string is enough. For others, it is a connection with a family member, friend or personal experience. This story is about how love heals. It is about Connie Spinks Ross who was a typical American woman who went to war, faced a horrific event and survived it.
An Army Beginning
Soon after graduating high school in 2000, Connie enlisted in the U.S. Army. Like many young people choosing a career of service, she wanted to serve her country, see the world, and earn money for school. Her father was initially not supportive of the idea but eventually supported her decision. Her family held a tradition of military service, so joining the military was not new to the family. Four uncles and two cousins were serving in the Army on active duty at the time she entered the ranks.
Her career began with basic training at Fort Jackson, SC. It was Oct 13, 2000, the day after her 19th birthday. After completion of initial entry training, she traveled to Fort Bragg, NC for training in her main occupational specialty, Civil Affairs Specialist (CA). A CA Specialist works with a host nation to rebuild and reconstruct civil society after conflict. While at Fort Bragg, the support of her Army family became apparent when she learned that her Mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Her teammates rallied behind her with emotional support. After completing her training, she joined her Army Reserve unit near home in North Carolina. About a year later, she moved to California, and The Army Reserve assigned her to the 426th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne). Connie distinguished herself as an above average Soldier when became an Army Paratrooper by completing Basic Airborne school.
Deployment to Iraq
Operation Iraqi Freedom launched in March 2003. The U.S. Army required the employment of civil affairs assets which Connie’s unit was a part. She was given an alert nine months before the unit deployed to Iraq. In preparation for the deployment, she completed six months of language training in Arabic and pre-deployment tactical training specific to Iraq. It also required her to say goodbye to her boyfriend. They had been dating for a year and a half when she told him that she wanted to break up. She didn’t want the stress or worry about a long-distance relationship. Her boyfriend begged and pleaded not to break up and Connie decided to continue the relationship. She deployed with a boyfriend unsure of how her life would unfold.
Incident in Ninevah
When Connie arrived in Iraq late in 2004, significant combat actions were completed. Her unit went to work rebuilding schools, clinics, markets, and restoring water, sewer, and electricity. However, an insurgency grew within Iraq due to gaps in security forces. Coalition bases would receive intermittent mortar and rocket attacks. On Oct 13, 2004, the day after her 22nd birthday, Connie’s unit was on a combat patrol to observe a marketplace rebuild project in Ninevah, Iraq. Connie was the turret gunner in the middle vehicle when a vehicle laden with explosives ran into her vehicle and detonated.
In an interview for the Veterans History Project, Connie described the incident, “I positioned my weapon to the right, and… so I said, “oba ter erami,” which is, “Stop, or I’m gonna shoot.” [in Arabic]. And at that time he floored it. He hit the gas so hard to where, before I even had a chance to pull the trigger, he was already…he had ran into my vehicle, and that’s when it had exploded. When it exploded, I was ejected from the turret.”
Connie sustained burns to her face and hands. The explosion broke her femur, shattered her right ankle, fractured her left ankle, broke two fingers in her left hand, and perforated her eardrums. The blast killed the two Soldiers sitting on the side the vehicle that the car was on. The other two Soldiers on the opposite side of the truck were severely injured.
Evacuation to the U.S.
The U.S. Army was quick to evacuate Connie to trauma care facility in Mosul, Iraq. Within three days, the Army transported Connie to Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The medical center is the premier facility for burn patients for the Army. Soon after being hospitalized, her boyfriend broke up with her.
Connie recalls, “I was a burn patient. I had numerous broken bones, on the top of a lot of other issues, so I don’t think he knew how to handle it. And that was okay with me because apparently, that wasn’t somebody I could marry, because if you’re to marry someone, it’s better, worse, in sickness and health. If he couldn’t be there for me when I was sick, then I’m better off without him anyway.”
Recovery from Wounds
Life did get better for Connie, but it wasn’t easy. She had multiple surgeries to repair her broken body. She had to learn to walk again. After four months in a wheelchair, she was able to take her first step. While in the hospital, she met actor Denzel Washington who presented her Purple Heart on behalf of the U.S. Army. While the visit was a highlight, but it was love that healed her.
Connie’s mother, Annette was a source of strength. Connie recalls, “I just look up to my mother. Because I love her so much, and she’s such a strong woman. She’s always taught me to be independent, strong-willed, and to believe what I believe in, and not to let anyone alter that. So I’ve always looked up to my mom, and I still do.”
As her body healed, so did her heart. It was at the same hospital during her recovery that she met Albert Ross, another soldier injured in Iraq. They first met on Jan. 19, 2005 while Connie was waiting outside the entrance to the physical rehabilitation department for one of her three daily sessions. She was sitting in a wheelchair minding her own business when she noticed Albert walking in her direction.
She recollects, “I looked up at him and said, ‘What you doing pimp-walking down the hallway?’’’ “Pimp-walking,” he replied. “I’m an amputee.” Connie’s jaw dropped when Albert sat next to her and raised his uniform pant leg up and showed her his prosthetic leg. From that day on, they became good friends.
Albert and Connie’s relationship blossomed. Two years later to the day they met, the couple got married. It was a surprise to Connie. “We spent a lot of time together, and I never knew that he liked me like that,” she said. “I love him so much; he has been there for me during this whole ordeal.”
The Ross family have three children and live in San Antonio, Texas. Albert is an automobile and diesel mechanic, and Connie is a teacher. Connie and Albert celebrated their ten year anniversary on January 19, 2017, at the same place that they met- outside the entrance to the physical rehabilitation department at the Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
The stories of Soldiers and the challenges they faced always impressed me when I served as a U.S. Army Officer. Connie‘s story has particular meaning to me because I was the Brigade Commander responsible for the battalion she served with ten years after she was wounded. I served as a civil affairs soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m intimately familiar with the hard task Connie, and her fellow Soldiers were asked to do. My respect for Soldiers like Connie and Albert who chose to serve and sacrificed for their country run deep. I am happy to hear that they recovered and they found each other. Love heals all wounds.
You can read the full interview with Connie at the Veterans History Project website.