The Great Recession and the war in Afghanistan shatter one family’s American Dream.
In February 2011, George Ross greeted Sam Newman, filmmaker, and me at his front door and helped us lug our heavy video equipment into the living room of his home in Livermore, Calif., a suburban city about one hour east of San Francisco. George, 58, had learned of our multimedia project Over 50 and Out of Work at a Bay area job support group and offered to participate. During the Great Recession, George lost his job as an information technology project manager for a large construction company, and he was still unemployed.
While Sam set up the camera and lights, George talked about his family and showed me photos of his wife Linda and their four sons. He pointed out their son Jason, a Marine explosive ordnance disposal technician who was stationed in Afghanistan at the time. George told me proudly that Jason had been selected to help provide security at President Obama’s 2008 inauguration due to his special expertise.
When George and I sat down for his video interview, he described his ongoing frustrating job search and his escalating financial problems. George and Linda had wanted to spare their sons the burden of student loan debt, so they had decided to take out a second mortgage on their home in the early 2000s when its value skyrocketed. Without George’s salary, Linda’s income from the daycare business that she operated out of their home was barely keeping their bills paid. George said they were using up their savings at a ferocious rate, and the couple had been forced to dip into their retirement funds.
Nevertheless, George was upbeat. Gregarious and outgoing, he was using his network of contacts to stay connected to his industry and on top of potential job openings. He was keeping his project manager certifications current as well as continually upgrading his professional skills. He was confident that he would be able to return to work.
In mid-March, I emailed George to let him know that his video interview was live on our website. A few days later George responded graciously. He thanked me for letting him know, but said he had not yet had a chance to take a look at it because his family circumstances had changed.
On March 7, 2011, Jason stepped on an improvised explosive device or IED while on patrol in Afghanistan. Both of his legs and part of his pelvis had to be amputated. George and Linda flew from California to be with Jason at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., now renamed the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. George said the doctors at the center told him that Jason’s injuries were among the most serious they had ever seen.
Gradually and miraculously, Jason’s medical condition stabilized. Jason and his wife, who have two young daughters, separated. George became his son’s primary non-medical caregiver both within the family and on behalf of the federal government, which paid him $71 a day for the task. Linda was forced to return to Livermore to run her home-based daycare because she and George needed the income from her small business to pay their bills, including their mortgage payments.
Up to this point in time, George and Linda’s quiet, normal life had been centered on their family, jobs and community. But the Great Recession and U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan shattered the American Dream they had built together.
George is one of the three main characters in our documentary Set for Life that grew out of Over 50 and Out of Work, so we have stayed in contact with him and Linda. Although they have never expressed any bitterness or regret over the events that have overwhelmed their life and devastated their expectations, they are deeply worried about Jason’s future, as well as their own.
In late 2011, Jason was transferred to the Naval Medical Center San Diego at Balboa Park. The Rosses were eager to have Jason back in California where Linda and his three brothers could visit more easily while George continued to provide his daily care. Jason’s wife and his two children also relocated to San Diego, so Jason, George and Linda were able to stay involved with the two little girls.
Jason’s condition continued to improve throughout most of 2012. Jason and George moved into a handicapped-accessible condominium in San Diego, and Jason was able to gain some independence in an adapted wheelchair that he could operate independently and a measure of freedom in a specially equipped van that George drove. The Wounded Warrior EOD Foundation, the Semper Fi Fund, Luke’s Wings, the Livermore Military Families Support Group, other organizations, friends and neighbors provided much-needed and greatly appreciated funds, supplies, transportation and necessities.
The assistance, targeted mostly at Jason and his immediate family, however, did little to ease the growing financial pressures that George and Linda faced. They struggled to make their monthly mortgage payments. Linda lived without heat, except during the hours when her daycare children were in the house. She discontinued her cable service. George sold his beloved Harley Davidson.
They tried to renegotiate their mortgage unsuccessfully. Their house was officially underwater, like many U.S. homes as a result of the decline in home values caused by the Great Recession. Off the record, George was told that their lender, Ocwen, would not consider lowering the interest rate or principal balance because the Rosses had not missed any of their monthly payments.
As the year wore on, Jason’s pain began to escalate. The bones in his pelvis were re-growing in a coral-like formation that pressed against the soft tissue and skin in his lower torso. Jason opted to return to Walter Reed for more surgery, and he and his wife decided to try to rebuild their marriage. She stepped in to become Jason’s non-medical caregiver. Back at Bethesda, Jason had 10 pounds of bone removed and is currently undergoing skin grafts. He hopes to begin physical therapy and use of a wheelchair again in the near future.
This fall, George, now 60, returned to Linda in Livermore and began his job search once again for a position as an information project manager. The couple’s savings are completely gone, given what they have coped with over the last 18 months, and they have fallen behind on their monthly mortgage payments to their great embarrassment. Yet they were told by their lender that they were no longer eligible for refinancing because George had no income at all – an infuriating Catch-22 that other unemployed workers have also faced in the perverse U.S. home mortgage refinance market.
George has now found employment as a driver for a car service company to bring in some money while he continues to job hunt for a full-time position. He and Linda remain loving, uncomplaining, patriotic and courageous. They are remarkable Americans who have suffered greatly at the mercy of forces beyond their control.
Every day, it seems, I read the announcements that large corporations make about their support for veterans and military families. As we enter this holiday season, there most be an American employer who can turn those good intentions into action and give George what he needs and deserves – a job.
This column originally appeared in Stay Thirsty December 2012.