Cleveland, Tennessee, firefighter's widow, firefighters fight for coverage of PTSD treatment

Firefighters from Cleveland, Tenn., and across the state stand with Jennifer Samples, a Cleveland police officer, on Wednesday as they advocate for the James "Dustin" Samples Act, which requires Tennessee firefighters' post-traumatic stress disorder problems be covered under state workers' compensation laws. Sample's husband, Cleveland Fire Department Capt. James "Dustin" Samples, took his life in 2020 following a years-long struggle with PTSD. (Staff photo by Andy Sher)

NASHVILLE - Several dozen Tennessee firefighters and their supporters came to the Tennessee Capitol on Wednesday to honor a late Cleveland, Tennessee, firefighter who suffered from work-related post-traumatic stress disorder while advocating in his name for changes to state worker's compensation laws to provide coverage for PTSD for firefighters.

Cleveland Fire Department Capt. James 'Dustin' Samples committed suicide Dec. 11, 2020, after a years-long struggle with PTSD, according to his family and friends.

That came following the Samples' expenditure of thousands of dollars in personal savings for treatment on a medical issue not covered under government insurance plans in Tennessee, they said.

Samples' PTSD was brought on by his experiences in protecting lives and property, his widow, Jennifer Samples, a Cleveland city police officer, told firefighters, supporters and lawmakers at the event on Legislative Plaza across the street from Tennessee's Capitol.

"Over the past 10 days, many of you have learned who Capt. James 'Dustin' Samples was," his wife said, as the couple's two young daughters stood nearby. "He was a 22-veteran of the Cleveland Fire Department, a leader among his peers, a daddy to three amazing kids and my best friend.

"We had built an incredible life, made plans for the future - and PTSD stole all that from us. Dustin wasn't just a statistic - and his loss wasn't just 'what firefighters signed up for.'"

Jennifer Samples, who has a teenage son from a prior marriage, said her husband treated him as his own son.

Firefighters across the state had already taken up PTSD coverage as an issue. But with Samples' death, it's become a cause. City of Cleveland firefighters Nathan Kuzdzal and Drew Rader spent 10 days walking the 17o or so miles in stages from Southeast Tennessee to Nashville, with fellow firefighters, family members and other supporters joining them along the way in honor of Capt. Samples, who died at age 41, and bringing attention to the issue.

Jennifer Samples serves on the steering committee of the 303 Project, a nonprofit working to address the effect of mental health disorders on first responders. The 303 Project partnered Cleveland firefighters on the walk.

"We're trying to get a culture change across the board where firefighters understand, 'Hey, it's OK to not be OK. We can get the help we need,'" Cleveland firefighter Jeremiah Million, a Samples friend, said at Wednesday's event. "And if this bill's passed, the legislators are saying, 'You know, the people that serve us every day, we know there's a problem.'"

It's the first step in combating PTSD, Million said.

Among those speaking was Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks, a former legislator, who knew Samples and offered a prayer as the event began.

"Dustin tragically suffered for many, many years in silence, and that is unnecessary," Brooks said.

He backs changes in the worker's compensation law, Brooks said later in a phone interview with the Times Free Press.

photo James 'Dustin' Samples Act: Jennifer Samples, a Cleveland, Tenn., police officer smiles at Lt. Gov. Randy McNally on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, as she and Cleveland city firefighters, colleagues from around the state and state legislators gather at the Tennessee Capitol to advocate for the James "Dustin" Samples Act, which requires Tennessee firefighters' post-traumatic stress disorder problems be covered under state workers' compensation laws. Samples' husband, Cleveland Fire Department Capt. James 'Dustin' Samples, took his life in 2020 following a years-long struggle with PTSD. (Andy Sher/Chattanooga Times Free Press)

"Many of these men and women race into danger when we're running out of danger," Brooks said.

The bill's primary sponsors are Sen. Richard Briggs, a Republican physician from Knoxville, and Rep. Bob Ramsey, R-Maryville, a dentist.

According to Briggs, Jennifer Samples told him her husband knew he had a problem and went into treatment, which was working.

"They ran out of money," Briggs said. "They had to stop the treatment. He committed suicide.

The bill is necessary, Briggs said.

"We don't want firefighters to run into a problem where they can't get the treatment that they need because they don't have the money to have it done," he said.

Ramsey agreed. He said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, people began to realize how critical first responders are.

"But we failed to see what kind of pressure and stress that they're under," Ramsey said. "And so we've seen a huge increase in suicides, resulting from PTSD going unchecked and untreated in first responders."

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is a bill co-sponsor. Firefighters, he said in a phone interview Wednesday, see horrible things - body parts and burned people.

"They go back and sit and reflect on what they have seen. And it's like you're supposed to turn it off. You can't turn it off," Gardenhire said. "This bill helps these guys out, trying to get them some relief without it being stigmatizing what they may be suffering. I don't care how tough someone thinks they are or how macho, when you see somebody cut to pieces or burned, it affects you. And that's what we're trying to do is somehow help these guys without putting a stigma on it and give them some relief and help."

According to a fiscal note, the bill would cost an estimated $4.6 million annually.

"We've got to convince the governor he's got to do this and put it in the supplemental budget," said Gardenhire, whose district includes part of Bradley County.

Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, a bill co-sponsor who attended the event, later said in an interview outside a Cordell Hull State Office Building committee room that the days of suffering in silence are over with for firefighters.

"We legislators need a concentrated effort on providing firefighters and first responders the resources that they need, whether it's mental health/substance abuse, PTSD, cancer screenings," Hall said. "We've done a poor job in the past, but we're drawing a line in the sand and no more. We're going to provide them the resources they need. And we're going to take this bill and pull it across the finish line."

Bill gains powerful backer

The legislation has picked up a powerful ally. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, who spent years as a volunteer firefighter. He attended the rally and said he supports the legislation, House Bill 1356/Senate Bill 1023.

"As a former volunteer firefighter myself, I have always admired and supported our state's firefighters. PTSD is a very real problem in the profession and has been for some time," McNally said in a statement to the Times Free Press. "Departments across the state have struggled mightily with retention issues in recent years. I think the Dustin Samples Act is a necessary step the legislature can take to support our current firefighters and create an environment that encourages prospective firefighters to answer the call to service."

Jennifer Samples told the crowd she and her husband talked about the stigma of seeking help for a mental health issue early on.

"Dustin experienced many traumatic events early in his career," she said. "Like most young firefighters, he didn't let what he felt on the inside show on the outside. Everybody else sucked it up, so he could, too."

When things got to the point where it was completely destroying him, Jennifer Samples said, her husband took time off work and spent thousands of dollars to get help.

"He knew his very life depended on it," she said. "However, the help was short lived, the financial burden costly. The stigma was present, and the resources were not easily accessible."

She said when her husband considered walking away early from a 22-year career he loved, he felt he couldn't take the financial risk.

"Well, on Dec. 11, 2020, his career did come to an end. And so did life as me and my children knew it," she said. "You see, PTSD doesn't just affect the firefighter, it affects the whole family: moms and dads, brothers and sisters, spouses and kids. I have two beautiful little girls who now won't get to attend their daddy-daughter dances, or [have him] walk them down the aisle. No, PTSD stole that too."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.