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   Even more physically challenging for Adam was completing the Tunnel to Towers 5K race in New York in September 2012. The fundraising event honors firefighter Stephen Siller, who died in the 9/11 rescue operation. Money from the race goes to the Building for America’s Bravest program, to build “smart” homes for severely injured service members.

By race time, Adam had graduated to full-length prosthetic legs, and insisted on walking the entire route on them while pushing his wheelchair. The ordeal confirmed that his right knee, which he could not bend, was damaging his back by causing a swinging gait. So that knee would have to be removed, too.

“I just had to accept the idea that nothing could be done to save it, and move on,” he says. “You learn not to get too attached to any one thing. If you dwell on it, you’re killing yourself.”  

Spending nearly three and a half years in and out of hospitals has meant letting go of many things: of friends who get better and move on, and of others who don’t make it.

It has meant learning that healing isn’t always a straight line. It has meant attending a huge hometown parade in his honor in Whitehall Township, and being whisked, VIP-like, into a rehearsal of NBC’s Saturday Night Live after he happened to mention being a fan while on a visit to New York City. It has meant being photographed with everyone from President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart, Bill OReilly, Tom Petty, Kevin Spacey and a half dozen Miss America contestants, beaming as they lean over his hospital bed. It has also meant days when one more surgery, one more minute of lying down, can seem unendurable.

But he has surmounted the despair that plagues many wounded service members and veterans. “We’re very lucky,” Julie says, adding that that luck seems largely due to Adam’s inborn upbeat temperament.

“It sounds awful to say, but this couldn’t have happened to anyone better,” Courtney says. “A lot of people would have a really hard time dealing with it, and he never did.”

“There was a little depression for a couple of weeks, and it seemed like a big deal at the time because I didn’t know how to bring him out of it,” Julie says. “But he came out of it himself. He wants to move on, move up and do what makes him happy.”

In October, Adam had what doctors believe will be his last surgery, a procedure to repair his abdominal wall. “I’m pretty excited for him,” says Rodriguez, the Navy trauma surgeon. “He feels like he can take his shirt off in public now. I think in a year, he’ll be doing really well.”  

At 29, Adam looks paler and thinner than he did earlier in the fall, thanks to the latest surgery, but he also has the restless, distracted air of a high school senior. “He’ll know when he’s ready to leave,” Rodriguez says. “Your body knows when you’re sick, and then it tells you whether you’re ready to go home.”

Adam is still on active duty, now a sergeant as well as an American citizen—both milestones occurring while he was in the hospital. Once he passes his medical evaluation and returns to civilian life, he says, he might do some motivational speaking for other veterans or open a bar. Or both.

With help from Building for America’s Bravest, the Gary Sinise Foundation and other organizations, he’ll soon break ground on a 2,300-square-foot smart home on land he bought in Annapolis. He likes the city’s strong military culture and its easy access to Walter Reed for prosthetic repairs. With its views of the water, it’s also a version of the Halifax of his childhood, “but a lot less hilly,” he says.  

Adam’s injuries have changed his family profoundly. “Compared to what we’ve been through in the past three and a half years, everything else seems minor, nothing seems worth stressing over,” Julie says. “Little family dramas don’t get to me. Life is short. If you don’t like something, change it.”     

Once Adam has settled into his new home, Julie and Stephen will be free to reimagine their own lives. With Courtney back in California and the mother of a son, Nolan, they have no reason to return to Whitehall Township, though they stay in close touch with Dolores Reed.  

“Julie has made so many sacrifices,” Dolores says as her grandsons, now 3 and 4, clamor for her attention in the background. “But I would have done exactly the same—any mother would.”

Julie and her son are now among the longest-term residents of Tranquility Hall, a place that has “become home,” she says, and will be difficult to leave. But as they’ve learned, life is all about making adjustments.

“With one phone call, your life changes completely,” Julie says.

Kathleen Wheaton is a frequent contributor to Bethesda Magazine. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesda