Thomas Adams led his troops on the front line in Iraq. He returned to Fort Lewis with horrific recollections — and a determination to help soldiers...
SPANAWAY, Pierce County — By the end of his tour in Iraq, Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Adams was crushed by memories. Too many memorial services for dead soldiers. Too many visits to the wounded in the hospital wards. Too many innocents — men, women and children — blown up by insurgent bombs or killed inadvertently by his Fort Lewis brigade.
Adams, the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in his brigade, started taking tranquilizers to help him sleep. In an unusual step, he shared his struggles with the homeward-bound troops.
At a dusty desert base in Kuwait, Adams went from unit to unit, telling his fellow soldiers that he was not OK and would seek counseling when he returned. He urged others to do the same.
In the Army, where soldiers often mask the traumas of war, this was an unsettling confession from a leader who had unflinchingly tackled the grimmest of tasks — even washing out the insides of armored Stryker vehicles bloodied by human remains.
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Since his return, Adams has shown a different kind of fortitude, emerging as a powerful advocate challenging the Army to better confront the mental wounds of war. His efforts helped expand mental-health counseling at Fort Lewis for returning soldiers — and improve training for Iraq-bound soldiers on the emotional hardships of combat.
“I had all generals from all walks of life come down and tell us how good we are and sprinkle holy water on us,” said Adams, referring to his pre-Iraq training. “But not one professional came and talked to us about what it’s going to be like when we lose somebody for real.”
Adams’ own homecoming has been shadowed by battles with post-traumatic stress disorder and the recent discovery of a possible mild brain injury.
When he first arrived back in Washington, watching Iraq combat scenes on television could plunge him into days of despair. He grew more forgetful, and his vision occasionally blurred. Sometimes, on the worst days, Adams wished he had died in Iraq among what he calls his “warriors.”
His personal troubles mirror the emergence of mental-health issues as a critical concern at military posts across the nation.
A Defense Department task force, in recent draft findings, cited the mental-health threats to soldiers as “one of the most pervasive and potentially disabling” costs of war. The task force noted that 38 percent of soldiers report psychological concerns upon their return from deployment, and concluded the Army has insufficient staff and funds to adequately care for those soldiers.
It’s a challenge that was largely unforeseen by Pentagon leaders. Before 9/11, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld embraced a vision of push-button warfare, which emphasized long-range bombers, missile-defense systems and other high-tech equipment rather than a reliance on ground troops.
The war in Iraq brought a different reality. The Army has been caught up in grueling urban combat that grinds on for months, and troop strength depends on the ability to maintain the emotional fitness of soldiers funneled back into repeat combat tours.
During a yearlong tour in Mosul, Iraq, Adams’ Stryker brigade was subject to 1,387 attacks by roadside bombs, 84 assaults by vehicles packed with explosives, and daily threats from mortars, small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
The brigade lost 45 soldiers; 632 were wounded. By Adams’ count, the brigade killed 550 insurgents.
“What I’m telling you is that there’s absolute carnage out there,” Adams said. “We have to be ready for the trauma of today’s battlefield.”
A leader and counselor
Adams, 47, has a trim beard, neatly coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, and a boxer’s build with 230 muscled pounds spread across a 6-foot frame.
Yet Adams almost didn’t make it to Iraq. A botched attempt to treat an ulcer resulted in more than a half-dozen surgeries. By the summer of 2003 he had lost much of his stomach, gallbladder and appendix as his weight dropped to 170 pounds. Army doctors wanted him to retire.
Adams had joined the service in 1978, a high-school dropout whose teenage years in Connecticut had included enough truancy, street fights and drug use to land him in a home for troubled youth.
He credited the Army with turning around his life and didn’t want to be forced out in the middle of war.
After a year of intensive weight lifting and other training, Adams was able to pass the Army’s physical-fitness test. He got a new appointment with the 1st Brigade 25th Infantry Division, which left for Mosul, Iraq, in the fall of 2004 with eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles.
In Iraq, Adams served as command sergeant major, the key liaison between enlisted soldiers and the commander. He emerged as an anchor of the 4,000-troop brigade.
He was a detail man who obsessed over the best sunglasses or water packs to take into the battlefield, then found a way to secure that equipment for his soldiers.
His street smarts were on display as he plotted strategy to parry the latest tactics of terrorist gangs. He demanded to share the dangers faced by other enlisted soldiers, spurning the fortified officer quarters to live in the standard trailers vulnerable to mortar attacks.
“He was in the fight every day — an absolute lead-from-the-front kind of guy,” said Sgt. 1st Class Creed McCaslin, an expert marksman who helped protect Adams.
For Adams, the hardest tasks came after the battles.
Three soldiers died in his arms after a December 2004 mess-hall bombing.
In an almost daily ritual, he would visit the newly wounded at the Army hospital in Mosul. Some had lost an eye; others suffered severe burns or had legs and arms mangled by explosions. Adams would award a brass brigade coin stamped with the Stryker vehicles, while Col. Robert Brown, the company commander, handed out Purple Hearts to soldiers.
Back at the trailers, Adams counseled soldiers as they grieved over a lost buddy or agonized over a civilian death.
During the course of the year, Adams tallied 186 men, women and children who fell victim to what he termed “the bad shoots,” when civilian vehicles approached too close to a traffic checkpoint or families got trapped inside an insurgent position under assault from American troops.
“You just can’t imagine what that does to a soldier,” Adams said. “What do you say to a guy that just blew away a woman and a kid because the enemy hid in that room with them and they all had to die? … I wasn’t prepared and I wish I was.”
Adams shared his concerns with Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who as Fort Lewis commander made several trips to Mosul. Adams talked about the shortcomings in training and the monumental readjustments the soldiers would face upon their return.
One suicide car bombing, some seven months into his tour, focused those concerns. Amid the blood and spattered body parts, the Stryker soldiers piled out of the vehicles and methodically began the difficult triage of abandoning the mortally wounded and trying to save the others.
It was a horrible sight — a young Iraqi victim had literally melted into the pavement. What would happen when it was finally time for these soldiers to go home?
“Colonel Brown and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to have some problems. This is not normal.’ And we certainly did.”
Aid for troops
Adams and the brigade returned to Fort Lewis in the fall of 2005.
By then, Dubik had worked with Madigan Army Medical Center to develop a screening program for brigade soldiers that included computerized surveys and at least one visit scheduled with a mental-health therapist between 90 and 180 days after their return.
Adams encouraged the soldiers to consider another option. They could call a military hotline to set up off-post counseling. Away from Fort Lewis, he believed, soldiers would talk more freely with less fear that their problems would filter back to their unit and hurt their career advancement.
Then he made it easier to go. Soldiers would no longer have to clear the visits with squad leaders, platoon sergeants, platoon leaders and officers. He told soldiers in his brigade that they needed to confide only in an immediate superior, who would keep their confidentiality.
Adams also sought to change combat training. Soldiers already studied “in gum-bleeding detail” how and when to kill. Adams insisted they needed to know how they might feel after the act.
“At a minimum, it should be a mandatory thing that we have to do. To discuss the real-world feeling, the emotions that you will go through — unless you are some sort of psychopath — when you kill another human being,” Adams said.
Based on the ideas of Adams and others who had served in Afghanistan, Dubik said, Fort Lewis began “psychological preparation” for all soldiers headed into combat zones.
Dubik also credits Adams with helping launch a senior leaders program, which brings together officers and top enlisted soldiers, as well as their spouses, to talk about the stresses of command.
That program wasn’t launched in time to help Adams.
By last fall, Adams had retired from the military, separated from his wife of 16 years and moved into a sparsely furnished house in Spanaway. Only a few Army mementos — a folded flag that he carried into combat and a photograph of a homecoming ball where he joined actor Bruce Willis on the podium — were on display in an upstairs den.
Adams found it hard to settle down. His obsession for detail turned compulsive: He would repeatedly check the locks on his doors before retiring for the night, then awaken again to check yet another time. He would go to the gym and lift weights for hours.
In the fall, he returned to Iraq as a private contractor, teaching ethics to Iraqi soldiers. As he hung out with other Stryker-brigade soldiers, who lost five men in the span of a few weeks, he began to experience severe flashbacks.
He cut short his work and returned to Spanaway, where he sought counseling from a private therapist.
Amid his own troubles, Adams fretted over the fate of other brigade soldiers. More than 700 of them had left the Army in the first three months after the homecoming. He believed most left before seeing a therapist. Adams had not alerted these soldiers to the options of going to the Veterans Administration clinics and feared they would not seek help.
“I failed them miserably, and I feel terrible about that,” Adams declared in testimony last January in Tacoma before the Defense Department task force on mental health.
He also had concerns about some soldiers still in the military.
One of those was his friend McCaslin. Twice injured in Iraq, McCaslin became hyper-vigilant as he frequently checked his surroundings for snipers. He feared that checking in with Madigan officials would raise questions with superiors and possibly jeopardize his security clearance.
Adams persuaded McCaslin to see a counselor off post.
“I listened to him. He’s my best friend,” McCaslin said. “I trust him with my life, and hey, what’s the hurt, to go talk to someone.”
After the January hearing, Department of Veterans Affairs doctors who heard Adams’ testimony offered help. Adams began meeting with Dr. Murray Raskind, a psychiatrist with VA Puget Sound Health Care System, whose post-traumatic stress research has earned him national renown. He also met with VA staff members who operate a Beacon Hill clinic for returning veterans.
For Adams, the scope of the services was an eye-opener. He wished he had known about them earlier and had briefed all his soldiers.
There was more remorse. And more restlessness.
In April, Adams decided to return to Iraq as a civilian contractor. The day before his departure from Spanaway, the phone rang. It was Gen. Dubik, who would soon be leaving Fort Lewis for a new position in Baghdad.
Dubik thanked Adams for helping to expand the Fort Lewis mental-health programs. He asked Adams to critique a new training program, according to an e-mail Dubik sent to The Seattle Times.
“I was very honored that he called,” Adams said. “I told him I’ve been struggling a bit on my own.”
On a Sunday, Adams arrived in Washington, D.C., for briefings before flying to Iraq.
His luggage included a year’s supply of drugs to help him through the year. There was Seroquel, the mood-stabilizing tranquilizer he had been taking ever since the last few months of Mosul combat. There was a new drug, prazosin, a blood-pressure medication that Dr. Raskind has successfully used to help post-traumatic stress patients sleep.
At the briefings, Adams learned he would be flying into Balad, a major U.S. base in Iraq that included a hospital.
That triggered bad memories. In Mosul, all the brain-injured soldiers had been flown to the Balad hospital.
Returning to his hotel room, Adams tried to sleep. He reached for the Seroquel and started downing pills. The standard dose was four pills. Adams took far more.
“At first, they didn’t know whether I had tried to commit suicide or had an overdose,” Adams recalled. “Well, overdose was a correct statement. I just didn’t have my wits about me.”
While Adams was recovering in a Washington, D.C., hospital, doctors discovered he might have an additional problem.
Doctors believed repeated exposure to blasts — even though he never blacked out — might have caused traumatic brain injury.
For Adams, this offered a new explanation for his short-term memory loss, and that of his buddies. They all had been exposed to substantial, and repeated, firepower.
It was too soon for a return to Iraq.
Adams wanted more time to heal.
Postscript: Back in Spanaway, Adams worked with VA doctors to improve screening for traumatic brain injury. But he could not stay home for long. In early May, he left for Afghanistan, where he now works as a civilian contractor training commandos.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org