October 11, 2018

Last year, Ross Leith attended every one of his son’s high school football games — both home and away.

Ross Leith served in the Army during the Gulf War as a cavalry scout.
Some people wouldn’t think twice about that. But for Leith, that was a victory. In the not-so-distant past, he would have been too afraid to leave his house. He’d find reasons not to go, or he’d even convince himself he was sick.

Just like nearly 70,000 other Gulf War veterans, Leith lives with post-traumatic stress disorder. He started experiencing it shortly after his service on the front lines as a cavalry scout during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

Post-traumatic stress disorder has touched all aspects of Leith’s life. It’s affected his relationships. It’s impacted his children. It even cost him his career. “It’s hard for us veterans to ask for help,” he says. “The hardest part is admitting you have it, that you do need help and you can’t do it on your own.”

That’s where the County’s Veterans’ Services Office comes in. The team helps veterans access the Department of Veterans Affairs benefits they’ve earned through their service — helping them stay housed, find stability, and improve their health. Last year, they represented more than 800 veterans in their claims for pension, disability and health benefits, at no cost to the claimant. In 2017, the team helped Leith access the disability benefits he qualifies for because of his diagnosis.

Kim Douthit, program supervisor for Veterans’ Services, says the team works every day to improve outcomes for veterans in Multnomah County. Many of the program staff are veterans themselves, and nearly 300 of the County’s 6,000 employees identify as veterans..

“Our focus is serving those who have served,” Douthit says. “Many veterans experience service-related disabilities. Our job is to keep them informed and give them the tools to advocate for themselves.”

A childhood influenced by veterans

Leith was an only child in a close-knit family. Together, they traveled across Oregon. His parents, avid scuba divers, took him on weekly trips to the Oregon Coast. When they weren’t diving, they’d camp in the forest. He remembers trips to the Columbia River Gorge for holidays at his grandmother’s home in Cascade Locks.

Service to country was always a theme. Leith’s father served as a supply specialist in the Air Force. As a teenager, Leith was fascinated by the war tattoos of his father’s veteran friends. Photos of his father in uniform often inspired him.

Leith didn’t think of the military as an option until after he graduated from Parkrose High School in 1989. College wasn’t working out, and he wasn’t interested in a 9-to-5 job. So one day, he went to an Army recruiter’s office. Within six months, he was flying to Fort Knox, Ky., for basic training.

After 13 weeks in boot camp, he moved to a base in Garlstedt, Germany. He’d been there only a few months when he got the news: his unit was being deployed to the Persian Gulf. He could have signed a waiver to stay in Germany, but he ultimately decided to go.

“I’m the type of guy that runs into the burning building,” he says.

As a cavalry scout, his job was to gather information on the enemy, such as their movement and activities, and report to the rest of the squad. That meant that he and his comrades were frequently the targets of assaults.

Early on Feb. 24, 1991, the sky lit up. Iraqi artillery fired on his unit. With the ground rumbling, he and his fellow soldiers dove from their vehicle into a trench they’d dug. Shells landed yards away. Leith wouldn’t sleep for the next 100 hours as he and his comrades endured a ground attack.

“I still feel the sand and dirt on my back occasionally and I remember the rumbling,” he says. “There's a bunch I don't remember. I now understand why. That’s my brain protecting me.”

By the end of that 100-hour fight, the United States had imposed a ceasefire. Within months, Leith’s unit returned to Germany. Even though the war was over, a backfire from a vehicle would still make the members of Leith’s unit flinch. 

Ross Leith's parents welcome him after returning home from Operation Desert Storm.

Civilian life marked by depression and addiction battles

Leith went on to finish his obligation and be honorably discharged. Still, he didn’t know his combat experiences would affect him for decades.

After the Army, he attended community college and Oregon State University. But alcohol began to consume him. It interfered with his schoolwork. Before long, he ended up on academic probation and had to leave.

Life went on. Leith married and had kids. But for years, Leith would move from job to job, only to be let go because his symptoms prevented him from being productive. Alcohol and anger issues —  from his PTSD — drove a rift between Leith and his wife, until they divorced.

With nowhere else to go, Leith was living out of his car. He had hit bottom.

Things turned around when his parents took him in. With support from his family, he talked to a psychologist about his trauma. He began to think of recovery as a mission, just like he was trained to do in the military.

“I approached it like an attack plan: achieve this goal, then move on to the next goal,” Leith says. “It helps us vets to think of it that way. It’s a life journey — you just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

But he hadn’t worked in years. After learning that the Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes PTSD as a disability, Leith applied on his own, and was granted partial disability status. At someone’s recommendation, he reached out to the County’s Veterans’ Services Office to learn if he might qualify for additional benefits.

Veterans’ Services program helps with the case

Marie Ramage, an expert in the disability benefits process, was Leith’s Veterans’ Services officer. She helped him gather the necessary evidence to show his disabilities prevented him from maintaining gainful employment.

For many veterans, applying for disability can be extremely complicated. Some people aren’t sure what type of documentation is needed to prove their case. The disability can also create obstacles, making it harder for claimants to advocate for themselves. With Ramage’s help, Leith was awarded the highest benefit possible: a total disability rating and a livable amount of monthly compensation.

“Ross was struggling with getting out of a difficult financial situation while also not being able to work because of service-related disabilities,” Ramage says. “He put in a lot of leg work to prove his disability, and he was ultimately able to get the full benefit.”

For Leith, receiving full disability benefits changed his life. It was the difference between a small stipend and an income he could live on, allowing him to take care of his health and focus on his family.

Now, Leith supports his aging parents, both in their mid-80s. After missing his daughter’s plays in high school, he made sure to experience her graduation in person. And now he looks forward to his son’s football games instead of avoiding them.

Today, Leith says he has a new lease on life. After suffering for 20 years, he has a message for other veterans: don’t wait to ask for help.

“If you are a veteran in Multnomah County and you are struggling, go talk to the team at Veterans' Services,” he says. “Hopefully veterans today who are struggling can hear about my story and decide to seek help for themselves.”