March-April 2014 | Featured Article

The Indomitable Spirit of Adam Keys

For a young soldier, war is a lesson in hard math: One best friend and three comrades, lost. Three limbs, gone. One marriage, ended. 130-plus surgeries, endured. But also: one family undivided, one will, unbroken.

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Combat engineer Adam Keys awoke in September 2010 in a hospital bed at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s shock trauma unit in Baltimore and asked a nurse where he was. Moments earlier—in his mind—he’d been in Afghanistan’s Zabul province, riding in an MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) convoy truck with his best friend, Jesse Reed.

Adam and Jesse, both 26, had attended high school together in Whitehall Township, Pa., and joined the Army in 2009. That December, they were deployed with the 20th Brigade of the 27th Engineer Battalion to a rural area southeast of Kandahar, where their job was to keep the roads clear for supply lines. On July 14, 2010, six months into their tour, the vehicle Jesse was driving hit an improvised explosive device and was flung into the air, ending a crumpled heap by the side of the road.

Adam had been largely unconscious ever since.

He still didn’t know that Jesse and three other soldiers—Chase Stanley, 21, Matthew Johnson, 21, and Zachary Fisher, 24—had died in the blast. Nor did he realize that he was a triple amputee. He’d broken his jaw, left shoulder, humerus and ankles, as well as sustained a severe concussion. The bomb had left his limbs intact, but a subsequent massive infection had nearly killed him and required the amputation of his left arm, an ankle and one leg above the knee. Eventually, he would lose the other knee, too.

During two months of unconsciousness, Adam had swirled in and out of a twilight of crazy dreams. Occasionally he overheard someone saying that he wasn’t going to make it, and that made him mad. He wanted to argue with them, but he couldn’t seem to speak.

When he finally could, thanks to a leak in his tracheotomy tube, it was 2 a.m. on Sept. 16. A nurse happened to be in the room checking on him. Startled and unsure what to say, she ran to get a doctor. That’s when Adam asked where his rifle was.  

Adam Keys would undergo more than 130 separate surgeries, as well as skin grafts and countless hours of physical therapy, during the course of his recovery. His mother, Julie Keys, would daily be at his side.   

Julie was staying at a nearby Baltimore hotel on the morning Adam finally spoke, along with Adam’s father, Stephen, sister, Courtney, and wife, Rosie. When they arrived at the hospital later that morning, the trach tube had been reinserted and he could no longer talk.

“At first, I thought I was still over there, and I couldn’t figure out how my family had gotten here,” Adam says, sitting in a motorized wheelchair at a Bethesda café last fall. “But after a while, I started to chill and figure it out.”

That he recognized his family members at all seemed a miracle. In the weeks after the attack, neurologists had been reducing his sedation gradually, asking him to squeeze a hand to indicate awareness. There had been no response.

Even if Adam were to survive, the Keyses were told, he would never be the same mentally. In addition to the concussion, he’d gone into septic shock, depriving his brain of oxygen. But Julie refused to believe it. “I said, ‘I’ve known him for 27 years and I’m sure he’s still in there.’ ”  

A tall, slender woman with dark blond hair, Julie recalls the period before his awakening, her rounded vowels reflecting her Nova Scotia origins. “I had nurses coming over to me and saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ ” she says as she sits opposite her son in the café. “And I said, ‘He’s not dead. If you can’t have some kind of positive attitude, you need to get out. I can’t have you here.’ ”

She appears to have had that same clarity about what needed to be done from the moment she learned that Jesse had been killed. His wife, Heather, had called Julie at the medical lab where she worked, and she knew that she had to go see Jesse’s mother, Dolores.

The two women shared a bond familiar to mothers of best buddies. The Keys family had moved to the Lehigh Valley region of Pennsylvania from Halifax, Nova Scotia, 13 years earlier, after Stephen Keys was offered a job installing and repairing communications lines. Adam and Jesse became best friends almost immediately. In middle school, the boys cut their fingers to become “blood brothers,” Dolores recalls in a telephone conversation. At Whitehall High School, both played football. The team was OK, she says; “they didn’t lose all the time.” Jesse was short and fiery—“like a little bull”—while Adam grew to be 6-foot-2, cheerful and easygoing.

“They were kind of a wild bunch in high school,” Dolores says. Nights when she woke to find Jesse gone, she’d call Julie; for sure, he’d be at the Keyses’ house.

After graduating in 2002, the boys floundered somewhat; they shared an apartment while working construction and doing other odd jobs. Adam had long been interested in joining the military. In Nova Scotia, he’d been a Royal Canadian Air Cadet, and after moving to the U.S. he joined the Civil Air Patrol, both volunteer pre-military organizations for teens. But he couldn’t enlist without a green card, and getting one had become more difficult in the years following 9/11.

By the time the green card came through, Adam had opened a pizza restaurant. “I thought: This is good, he’ll make a success of the business and forget about the military,” Julie says. “But then the business failed, and he went to see the recruiter.” Though her father and grandfather had served in the Canadian navy, “I tried to talk him out of it—I’m a mother,” she says. “But I saw that it was what he really wanted.”

Adam decided to join the Army because it offered parachute jumping, which he’d always longed to do. He did his basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., and then went to airborne school at Fort Benning, Ga., before rejoining his unit at Fort Bragg. Jesse had already completed his basic and requested a transfer to Adam’s battalion so they could be deployed together—something the Army probably wouldn’t have granted if they’d been actual brothers, Adam says.   

Dolores had also opposed her son going to war. Jesse was her only child. But she concedes that the military gave both young men discipline and a sense of purpose.

By the time they were deployed to Afghanistan in December 2009, both had married, and Jesse was soon to be the father of three. He’d adopted Heather’s small daughter, whose father had died, and the couple had a son together, Dylan, plus another on the way. His second son, who was named after him, would be born six weeks after Jesse’s death. Adam would become the child’s godfather.

On the evening of July 14, Julie arrived at the Reed house to offer her condolences, but soon found Dolores comforting her. There was still no word on Adam, though Julie knew that he and Jesse often went on patrols together. Military protocol requires that families of the dead be notified in person before any other information about an incident is released.

Julie went home, but she didn’t sleep that night. Each time she heard a car outside, she dreaded that it would stop in front of their house. At 5 a.m., she noticed that Adam’s wife, Rosie, was online, presumably scouring the Internet for news. Then at 7 a.m., the call came: Adam had been critically injured. He was being flown from Bagram Air  Base in Afghanistan to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and from there would be transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which was then still located in D.C.

That July was a month of heavy casualties in Afghanistan, and it was six days before there was room for Adam on a transport back to the U.S. “We were on the phone every day with Germany, harassing the doctors and nurses, though I guess they’re used to it,” Julie says. The Army arranged for the Keyses to travel to Washington, and Courtney, 24 and newly married, flew in from her home in Folsom, Calif.  The family was finally reunited on July 20, a Tuesday.