By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
“It was a long road. And probably, emotionally, one of the most taxing parts of that was dealing with being disfigured. So much of our identity is tied up in our face and what we look like and that was very, very difficult.” Sam Brown
The heroic story of the road to recovery for retired U.S. Army Capt. Sam Brown — leading him to become a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Nevada — began shortly after 9/11 in 2001.
“After 9/11, the next month I was accepted to West Point and that put me on a journey that brought me here today,” Brown told host Sam Shad on Thursday’s edition of Nevada Newsmakers.
After West Point, he was commissioned as an Army officer, shipped to Afghanistan in 2008 where, he said, “I had the opportunity to lead troops in combat.”
After a few months, while on a humanitarian mission, a platoon from his company was ambushed. Brown rushed to help.
“That is when my vehicle hit an IED (improvised explosive device), blew up, killed one of my soldiers and left four of us wounded,” Brown said.
Brown barely survived. His finger was blown off. He suffered severe burns all over his face and body, forever altering his appearance. A painful struggle and a year’s rehabilitation awaited him.
“It started a three-year road to recovery, which you can imagine, was a very pivotal moment in my life,” Brown said. “I changed a lot of things. I left my military career and started a whole new life.”
At first, he refused to think his injuries were that bad. At 24, he wanted to return Afghanistan, lead his troops and fight for the United States.
“That was my mentality,” he said. “(My belief was) they are going to take me home, I’ll get bandaged up and I’ll come back and join my soldiers. So for the next few months, I told the doctors, ‘Hey, let me get through rehab as fast as I can. I’m going to be going back and be with my soldiers.’
“I knew that they (his soldiers) had about nine months left in their deployment,” Brown said. “They (doctors) kept saying, ‘No, you’re pretty bad off. You are not going to be going back.’ So it took me a long time to come to terms with that.”
There was no going back. Going forward, as painful and heartbreaking as that may be, was his only option. He would live the rest of his life disfigured.
“Ultimately, I spent three years, in and out of DOR (Department of Rehabilitation), 30 surgeries, two years of five-days-a-week rehab,” he said.
“The third year I rehabbed a couple of times a week,” he added. “It was a long road. And probably, emotionally, one of the most taxing parts of that was dealing with being disfigured. So much of our identity is tied up in our face and what we look like and that was very, very difficult.
“A little over 30 percent of my body had what we call full-thickness burns, third degree burns which means all of that skin had to be excised off and replaced with donor skin from other parts of my body,” he said.
“Unfortunately for me, I had an over-healing reaction, called hyper-tropic scarring (thick raised scar) and they would take skin off of the other parts of my body to replaced the burned skin in that area …. So over 50 percent of my body was effectively left with these scars on them, some from burns, some from donor sites.”
It took a lot of work by doctors to get Brown looking as good as he does today. Yet he looked worse for many months.
“The face folks see today is not the face I had to see for awhile,” Brown said. “There was a lot of plastic surgery, a lot of work, and going through that transformation was very emotionally taxing. But I got through it.”
Yet his ordeal also led Brown to his soulmate.
“My mother spent six months with me, helping me recover,” he said. “Then she sort of handed the baton off to someone who was Lt. Amy Larsen at the time. She was a dietician in the burn unit and ultimately became my wife. And Amy has been by my side since then. We were married in May of ’09, right about nine months after I was wounded.”
Brown, however, did not live ‘happily ever after” with his bride.
He struggled physically.
He struggled mentally.
He struggled spiritually.
“I became sort of a leader and a servant without anyone to lead and no one to serve for a while,” he said. “There was a period of time where I was sort of lost… I only wanted to serve in the military ever since I was 4 or 5 years old. That was dream, my passion. So to have that cut short, at effectively 24 years old, was really difficult.”
His ordeal made his faith grow stronger — into something real, something tangible.
“When I was raised, I went to church but is was more of a ritual, traditional thing,” Brown said. “There was no interaction between me and a deity. So this is where faith became real. It became more than an act. It became a belief.”
He realized that he escaped death for a purpose. The difficult journey had humbled the West Point graduate.
“I should not have survived what I went through in Afghanistan,” Brown said. “And the fact that I’m alive means I have some other purpose in life, to serve others.
“And I just needed to find how to do that,” he continued. “I figured that I could maybe serve somehow in business. So I went back to school — and this comes from the humility standpoint to realize that I don’t know everything. And I used to think I did.
“When you figure out that you don’t (know everything), you need to go back and make some adjustments in life,” Brown said. “So I went back and got my MBA and started to work on trying to get myself to set up and serve the community where I come from and I love, which is veterans. And today, I have a business that provides pharmacy services to veterans through the VA clinics.”
Eventually it also led to conservative politics and running for the U.S. Senate — competing against a well-known politician — former Attorney General Adam Laxalt — for the GOP nomination.
The winner, of course, will take on incumbent Democrat, Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, in the 2022 general election.
“The reason I chose to run for the U.S. Senate is because we have a real need there,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto is much more in alignment with (Democratic Senate Majority Leader) Chuck Schumer — and the Democrat Party is moving further and further left and each cycle. I don’t believe that represents Nevadans very well.”
He did not begin his political career a bit further down the ladder because he felt no change was needed in other offices in his orbit.
“This a a purple state, very evenly divided between Republicans, Democrats and independents,” he said. “And so, if you look at other races, Mark Amodei is our congressman and Heidi Gansert is our state senator. For me to be running for those offices would be part of a process of me being involved in politics for the sake of politics, as opposed to me trying to make a difference.
“The U.S. Senate is a place where I think there is a need for a change, on behalf of this state and behalf of the country,” he said. “I don’t desire to be a career politician. I don’t want to climb the ladder to get somewhere else.”