CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Memorial Day is a time to look back at the service rendered by the members of America’s armed forces units. Sometimes the challenges don’t only come in active combat but in the aftermath of severe injuries suffered by soldiers. Here is one soldier’s story of coming back to life after injuries that were nearly fatal.
Adam Dean Greathouse, 36, has been on one long journey.
It began when he was a corporal on a six-month Army tour in 2001 in Kosovo.
He was exposed to what he believes were chemical weapons used in the conflict between Serbians and Albanians.
“I breathed it in — we’re not really sure exactly how that came across but I did get exposed to a chemical which ate my left lung and had bacterial pneumonia with acute respiratory distress syndrome along with that,” Greathouse said.
He was flown to a hospital in Germany where he remained in a coma for two months.
He was not given much chance for survival.
His odds were so low, in fact, that a warrant officer was flown over from the States to accompany his body home, and a flag was sent to his mother in Spencer.
But one day he awoke. He started looking around trying to figure out what had happened.
“They had put a [tracheostomy tube] in for life support. And I noticed I had staples on the left side of my chest from about my left pec all the way back to the same spot on my back; they removed my [left] lung while I was out because it had holes eaten in it from the chemical exposure.”
When he awoke, he weighed only 110 pounds, he said.
“Prior to being sick, I was about 215, in great shape.”
He lay in that bed wondering what was to become of him.
“I couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t feel from my hips down. I was bedfast pretty much the whole time in Germany.”
With his senses heightened, he could tell if the footfalls coming down the corridor were those of doctors or nurses. One day, he heard Army boots.
“And my eyes got real big. All of sudden, four soldiers came into my room. One of them said, ‘Are you ready to go home, soldier?’”
“I couldn’t talk, so I gave ’em the thumbs-up,” Greathouse said.
He saw the sky for the first time in months as they loaded him on a gurney into a helicopter for an eventual journey back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
After some initial treatment there learning how to walk again, he was released to his family in Spencer.
And that’s when things began to spiral downward for him.
“They released me, I went home, and no one told me about the [Veterans Administration]. I was back home for like eight years and I didn’t know about the VA. That was a really, really hard time for me.”
He self-medicated with alcohol, pausing only when he had his three children in hand.
“I did drink massive amounts of alcohol daily, except for the weekends when I had my children, and then it was kind of like a fake smile. Then when I had to drop them off, I went back all week to drinking.”
His mother found out about the VA Hospital in Huntington and encouraged him to go seek help.
“She said they can get you help. I didn’t want to go because it was a hospital environment, and I had had a horrible experience in Germany.”
Finally, he agreed to go. Not because he wanted to, or because he thought it would help.
He went to appease his mother.
“She was my biggest supporter.”
While there, he found out that his brain had been damaged by oxygen deprivation when he was exposed to the toxic chemicals.
“I found out that I had a brain injury that whole time that I didn’t know. I had like three parts of my brain that didn’t wake up. I’ll be honest: At that point I was in denial because no one wants to be disabled.”
But he kept at it and at one point was referred to the VA’s recreational therapy program.
He was at first leery because of that word “therapy.” But joining the program would change his life.
“If it wasn’t for the recreational therapy program and, honestly, the Huntington VA, I wouldn’t be alive. They not only saved my life, they changed it in ways that there’s no way in the world I could possibly thank them,” Greathouse said.
His recreational therapist, Brent Sturm, took him on a whitewater rafting trip.
Then he went to the VA National Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado, where he became skilled on a snowboard.
When he returned to Snowmass the following year, in April 2013, he won the Novice Snowboarder of the Year award.
His social skills improved too.
“Up until November, I couldn’t talk to two people at one time; I could only talk to one person. Because I couldn’t focus,” he said.
But now he’s addressing classes and conferences, rooms full of other veterans who — having given so much to their country — are struggling to get their own lives back on track.
“They’ve seen something in me that I didn’t, and they’ve asked me to be part of a patient-centered-care class. I do it about twice a week now in Huntington. It’s the Veterans Experience. I tell them my story, I tell them never lose hope, things can get better.
“So my story can help them understand. There are other veterans that can do the same thing as me. They just need to have hope.”
Greathouse has traveled across the country to take part in rehabilitation events for disabled veterans.
“I’m here for a reason. They said with my injuries it was a 98 percent fatality rate. I felt like there’s a purpose for me and I was wasting it. Now, with the help of the VA, especially Huntington, it’s been a dramatic change.”
He is raising his 16-year-old son and he’s always on the move.
Greathouse still possesses the flag the Army sent to drape his coffin. It hangs in his weight room.
“It’s kind of like an inspiration. It motivates me. It kind of shows what I beat.”
He is sometimes introduced as a hero, which he downplays.
“I tell ’em I’m a regular guy that had to survive until I got to the point where I could change. But the staff members are the heroes. I’m no hero. I’m just a soldier. The staff members from the Huntington VA are heroes because on a daily basis they’re saving people, and they don’t get acknowledged for it.
“But I let them know straight up from my heart.
“They’re saving people. I am definitely walking proof.”