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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Photo by Michael Ventura   Courtney moved with her mother into a Marriott hotel a block from Walter Reed. For five months, she helped her brother with everyday tasks such as shaving and brushing his teeth, and spent time with him listening to music and “just hanging out,” she says. Having earned a degree in biobehavioral health from Penn State in 2008, she was able to explain many of the medical procedures Adam faced, but she was terrified when he coded. Her CPR training had taught her that most patients, out of the hospital, don’t survive it. Courtney’s husband, who travels frequently for his job at Intel, visited when he could, but like her parents, she put her life on hold without a second thought.

Being able to spend time with Adam was the upside, she says, of what was then a weak job market in California.

The two siblings are 18 months apart in age and have always been close—even more so after the family immigrated to the U.S. In high school, Adam was universally liked, his sister says: “He was always a good person, but the injury seems to have made his outlook even more positive.”

She adds, “I’ve asked him, ‘Adam, aren’t you mad?’ and he’ll say, ‘Well, what’s that going to do?’ It blows my mind.”

Adam maintains that he’s not so much positive as he is stubborn. “The minute I’m told I can’t do something, I want to prove that I can,” he says.

While he was still in the ICU at the shock trauma center, he began talking about jumping from an airplane again. He’d jumped five times in airborne school and four more times at Fort Bragg. Now he wanted to make it an even 10. “They told me to just get it out of my head,” he says. “Which meant that I had to do it.”  

But first, he had to get out of bed. In November 2011, after 15 months as an inpatient, including two months at BAMC in Texas while Walter Reed was consolidating its facilities and moving to Bethesda, Adam was finally discharged from the hospital. With Julie, he moved into a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Walter Reed’s Building 62, known as Tranquility Hall, which has 306 beds for wounded service members and their caregivers adjusting to life post-injury.

Airy and light-filled, with wide corridors to accommodate wheelchairs, Tranquility Hall is also a lifeline for the families of the wounded. While Adam began physical therapy and took his first steps toward recovery, Julie bonded with others whose lives revolved around caring for their badly wounded sons, daughters or spouses. In the early evening, after supper, they’d gather on the building’s patio to “laugh, cry and pick each other up when we’re down,” she says. “They are from all walks of life, and they completely understand what you’re going through. You become very close, and it’s hard to say goodbye when it’s time to leave.”  

Adam learned to use four different types of robotic and mechanical hands and to walk on prosthetic legs. The “shorties” that he began on made him only 4-foot-10, but after 15 months, it was great to be upright and take a few steps, he says. As he progressed, his Facebook postings became increasingly upbeat: “What do you do when three quarters of your body is carbon fiber!?! SMILE and attempt to pose like Captain Morgan, haha!!”

With his new friends, he began venturing out to explore the nightlife in Bethesda.

Shuttling Adam and his buddies downtown and then picking them up late at night, or arranging carpools with other parents, felt like déjà vu, Julie says with a laugh. “It was high school all over again, all the things we thought we were done with. And just like back then, you have to learn to let go. When he was an inpatient, I’d gotten used to doing everything for him. But once we were in the apartment, he’d say, ‘Let me try that.’ And so I had to back off.”

In downtown Bethesda, Julie says, Adam and his friends “can be a little intimidating, rolling down the sidewalk in their power chairs. But they love going out.”

Favorite nightspots include Caddies on Cordell—“Great food, and enough TVs so you can see any game, plus it’s all on the ground level,” Adam says—as well as Haven Pizzeria and the Regal movie theater on Wisconsin Avenue. He’s dating again—a romance that he and his new girlfriend, whom he met in Bethesda a year ago, prefer to keep private for now.

“They go good together,” his sister affirms.  

On July 12, 2012, two years after the blast, Adam and his parents went to Fort Bragg so he could make a 10th jump with the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army Parachute Team. Julie suited up and jumped, too.

Wasn’t that an extreme act of motherly devotion, even for her?

They both smile. Actually, she explains, she’d racked up nine parachute jumps as a teen when her father was posted to South Africa. Adam had always been determined to beat his mom’s record. Which he did, for a few seconds—tandem jumping with an Army medic before she followed him. “I wasn’t really that nervous,” she says. “I was more focused on whether Adam had everything he needed for his jump.”