Forty-five minutes into a conversation about his political aspirations and his life (which, by his own account, should have ended five years ago), Sam Brown stops himself midsentence to figure out what his son wants. Roman is 2 years old. He has ambled into the dining room, burbling.
“Eee ahf,” Roman says, reaching a tiny hand toward his father. “Eee ahf.”
“You want Daddy’s ear?” Sam asks.
He leans over in his chair so his son can reach him. Then Roman pulls off both of Sam’s ears, and I laugh so hard that a later listen to my digital recording reveals a snort. Sam laughs, too. Like: kids do the darndest things! And prosthetic ears! Roman heads back into the living room of the tidy North Dallas house and casually drops his father’s ears onto the floor.
In 2008, Sam was a first lieutenant in the Army, leading a platoon into a firefight in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when an improvised explosive device tore through his Humvee and set him on fire. He sustained third-degree burns to 30 percent of his body.
“When I hit that IED, it was the first time I’d ever encountered anything, right from the get-go, that I knew I couldn’t overcome on my own,” Sam says. “I’m so thankful for this moment, because it just changed my perspective on things. I hit a point—and I don’t know how long I was fighting it. It seemed like forever, but it might have been 30 seconds. I hit a point where I’m still burning. I can’t see anything because my face is on fire. And I just let it go.
“Then I heard one of my soldier’s voices. He said, ‘Sir, I’ve got you.’ It brought me out of that. I know I’m going to live. But what was important was me hitting that point of absolute release. I no longer controlled my life. Coming out of that, I realized life is really not about me. The life I live is not my own.”
Sam calls it his “road to Damascus” moment. Before: a cocksure West Point graduate from a Christian family, yes, but focused on himself and his career. After: a man burned and humbled, more than lucky to be alive, saved.
He was transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he underwent more than two dozen surgeries and endured unimaginable agony, as nurses daily scraped and cut at his necrotic flesh. Last year, GQ published a 7,500-word feature about Sam’s ordeal and an experimental virtual-reality procedure used to ease his pain. Eventually, doctors had to remove most of his face, which had become pink and bloated with scar tissue. They created a new face for him, using skin grafts grown on his chest and abdomen.
What was important was me hitting that point of absolute release. I no longer controlled my life. Coming out of that, I realized life is really not about me. The life I live is not my own.
Even in the last year, his face has changed as it has gradually healed. He can mark the progress only by looking at old photographs, the same way his children’s faces change before his eyes, every day, imperceptibly. “Maybe in another couple years, I’ll look like I’m 22 again,” Sam jokes. Each ear, by the way, is a marvel of prosthesis, attached to his head with two small magnet posts that are screwed into his skull.
It was during his convalescence in San Antonio that Sam Brown, from Arkansas, met First Lieutenant Amy Larsen, a dietitian from South Dakota assigned to help him get healthy. They married after dating for only three months. Amy has seen pictures of that soldier before he was injured and says she doesn’t think she would have been attracted to him.
“I really did not like prideful men,” she says, cradling their infant daughter, Esther. Amy doesn’t think Sam would have liked her much either. “I was really self-absorbed, didn’t much care about other people’s feelings. Had we met before Sam was injured, I think we would have hated each other.”
Roger Staubach brought the couple to Dallas. In 2011, while Sam was in town to speak to a group of veterans, the two men had a chance meeting. Staubach was launching a nonprofit to help North Texas vets with employment, housing, and other civilian matters. Sam hired on as a director, a role he relinquished before launching his own management-consulting business. He and Amy found their way to District 102 because a woman working for Staubach suggested that the couple check out Northwood Hills, a neighborhood centered at Meandering Way and Spring Valley.
“I’m here quite by decision and not by design,” Sam says.
He sounds a little defensive. People have asked how he came to live in a House district with one of the oddest races in the state. Given his youth and inexperience (he’s 30 and, till now, not politically active), it’s natural to wonder about his motivations.
In August, a group of 70 or so citizens showed up to hear Sam’s first stump speech, given at his campaign manager’s house in North Dallas. Driving over, Sam was a nervous wreck. Public speaking normally didn’t trouble him in the least. But this occasion was different. He’d memorized the speech—small government, wasteful spending, family values, the standard fare—and repeatedly recorded himself on his phone to improve his delivery. But it wasn’t working. In his car, he listened to his last effort and called Amy.
“Babe, this is going to be terrible,” he said. “This is going to be the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Amy told him, “Be yourself. Why are you trying to memorize it? Don’t worry about what the notes say. Just talk to the folks.”
One person who heard the speech says there were wet eyes in the audience.
In politics, though, wet eyes are one thing. Open wallets are another. Sam won’t say how much money he has raised. The first campaign disclosures aren’t due until January; the primary is in March. He will, however, tick off a list of impressive supporters: David Feherty, the television star and a strong supporter of veterans’ causes; Jeanne Phillips, a former U.S. ambassador appointed by George W. Bush; Joe DePinto, president and CEO of 7-Eleven; billionaire T. Boone Pickens; and, of course, Staubach, aka Captain America.
District 102 is a Republican stronghold that lies north of 635, encompasses most of Addison, a part of North Dallas, a chunk of Richardson, and a slice of Garland. Its crowded field of candidates, some more serious than others, was created by Governor Rick Perry. When he announced that he wouldn’t seek another term, Perry set off a chain reaction. Attorney General Greg Abbott decided to run for Perry’s job. Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman decided to run for Abbott’s job. And State Representative Stefani Carter, from House District 102, decided to run for Smitherman’s job.
Without an incumbent, the seat was up for grabs, and Republicans came running. One was former State Board of Education member George Clayton, who is gay but doesn’t want to be called gay because he detests labels. Then Clayton decided he didn’t like the Republican label and switched parties.
Next up: Adryana Boyne, recently relocated from Denton County, a Hispanic activist with a delightfully strong Mexican accent (she herself refers to it) and even stronger ties to the Tea Party. Boyne is quick to point out that she has been politically active longer than Sam has been alive. She and Sam both attend Watermark Community Church, an organization so large that each candidate can plausibly claim never to have seen the other on Sunday, which claim they do make.
Then there’s Linda Koop, who served for eight years on the Dallas City Council and was so popular with her constituents that she always ran unopposed. She only left because the city charter said she had to. Koop hates burdensome taxes and loves transportation policy.
And, finally, the last to jump into the race: Stefani Carter. Yes, the incumbent wants to be incumbent after all. Announcing her candidacy in late October, she said nothing about the paltry $15,083 she had raised during the three months that ended August 25. Nor did she say anything about her chief political consultant, Craig Murphy, who is also Koop’s consultant. What Carter did say was that she was abandoning her statewide aspirations because she cares too much about District 102, where the field of candidates was so subpar that she could not, in good conscience, leave her job. Her quote in the Dallas Morning News: “A lot of people were concerned about the candidates in the race.”
Before Carter changed her mind, I ask Sam about how he compares to his Republican challengers. “Koop has that name recognition,” I say. “And Adryana Boyne, well, her ears don’t come off.”
“That’s a distinction. Do I hear you saying this is about the beauty and the beast?” he says, laughing. “That doesn’t cross my mind. I’m not concerned about who I’m running against. I’m not a professional politician. I’m doing this for these kiddos right here. For the first time in Amy’s and my adult life, we’ve been able to choose a home, plant roots. I’m doing this because I’m concerned that if we don’t have rational folks who operate on their values and principles in Austin, we’ll keep slipping down this slope of madness that we’re seeing in D.C.”
He sounds like a politician. That he doesn’t look like one turns out to be immaterial.