Timothy “TJ” Adams rolls his eyes once again. This is the third time his mother has asked to show me the video of him in the hospital bed as he receives his Purple Heart.
For Jill Adams, it is a better memory than the morning she was told her 19-year-old boy had been shot. Despite his protests she persists — it was a proud moment for both of them, even if it’s a little hard for TJ to watch.
“I was on 8 million drugs. I was cracked out,” TJ said. “It completely dissolves my military bearing.”
I watched less than a minute. In the grainy footage, TJ is as upright as the hospital bed will push him. An Army general and other dignitaries surround his bed. He looks good — you wouldn’t know that hours before, his life literally seeped away on the floor of a bunker in Afghanistan.
Since TJ was 7 years old, the Burroughs High School graduate with an affinity for classic cars and heavy metal bands wanted to volunteer for the United States Army. At age 17, he brought his parents the form for early enlistment, which requires the signatures of two legal guardians. His father, Michael, didn’t want to see his son go, but “I had to respect his decision to make that decision.”
Jill wouldn’t sign it, fearing the worst for her son. Instead, she told him, he had to wait until he was 18.
In June of this year, the worst was realized. TJ was stationed at a combat outpost in Kunar Province near the Pakistan border, about 150 kilometers from the compound in which Osama bin Laden was found.
The outpost was a bunker made of wood, sand and tarps. To illustrate, they took me to TJ’s room where they play a video recorded by his unit’s medic. The bunker overlooked verdant, rolling valleys beneath cloud-pocked skies. Occasionally a hilltop erupted in smoke; another Taliban outpost was hit from the soldiers stationed at each window of the bunker.
On June 26, in a shelter just like the one on the video, TJ and his fellow Wolfhounds of Alpha Company came under fire. As TJ told it: “It was a rocket-propelled grenade shot at my face.”
Shrapnel tore a gash in TJ’s neck and sliced his carotid artery. Someone stuck two fingers in the wound to slow the bleeding.
“I could have filled a wading pool,” he said.
He made it to a military hospital, where he was able to call his father. The message: “I got shot. I’m cool. I’ll be home soon.”
He asked Michael not to tell Jill, who was informed soon enough of her son’s injuries once they were broadcast on CNN.
“I went into shock. I didn’t know if he was going to be OK,” Jill said. “It happened on a Wednesday. I didn’t sleep until Saturday.”
After several weeks of healing and surgery (an artery was removed from his groin and grafted to his neck), TJ made the long journey home. On July 20, almost one month after getting hit, he arrived home where he’s been resting since.
Always his thoughts are with his fellow infantrymen.
“The sense of abandonment leaving there is unbearable,” he said.
TJ said he is ready to go back, but this time it will be a support role — when he leaves for Hawaii on Thursday, he will probably be stationed at a desk.
On one of his last nights home, he and his family attended a comedy film screening event at Flappers in downtown Burbank. The event is one of many associated with this year’s Burbank International Film Festival, for which family friend Ron Irwin handles some public relations.
TJ was front and center. Host Allen Rueckert barely got two sentences out to kick off the night before announcing a hero in their midst.
“I think I speak for everyone when I say, ‘Thank you,’ and we are supporting everything you do,” Rueckert said.
TJ raised his hand, offering a humble smile that is an Adams family trademark. At the end of the row of seats, his mother and grandmother clapped louder and louder.
I was sitting next to his little brother Jason, whose epilepsy prevents him from following in TJ’s footsteps. His clapping was enough for the both of them.
TJ nearly gave his life on the front lines. In his new support role, he has some excellent examples to follow: his family is proof of just how important having a great support crew can be.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he’s not meeting real-life heroes, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.