Virtually blind in one eye and barely topping 100 pounds, suburban teenager Bob Adams never thought he'd be shipped off to combat in Vietnam with the unenviable task of trying to save the lives of wounded warriors.
Forty-five years later, the 64-year-old Adams, a playwright and a counselor, is still doing the same job, only this time from the relative comfort of his cramped office in the Midwest Shelter For Homeless Veterans that he founded in Wheaton.
"Everybody needs a hobby, and mine is making errors in judgment," Adams says dryly, noting that he and a buddy joined the Navy solely as part of a misguided scheme to avoid getting drafted and sent to Vietnam. The vision in his left eye was so bad he couldn't read any part of the eye chart during his induction physical.
"I had been taking eye tests since I was 3 years old. I knew that the big letter is an E," recalls Adams, who passed his physical and endured boot camp and training before he left for Vietnam in the spring of 1968 to serve as a corpsman providing medical services for the Marines based in Khe Sanh, home to some of the war's longest and bloodiest battles.
"Corpsmen were an endangered species," he says, noting that he rose through the ranks from a newbie to senior corpsman in about 2½ months as his superiors were killed, wounded or succumbed to malaria and other dangers.
"I was scared to death," says Adams, who was assigned to a Marine combat base called Con Thien, which ironically translates as "Place of Angels," and saw frequent barrages of mortar and rocket attacks as well as gunbattles. Adams, who celebrated his 21st birthday with a cigar sent from his devoted father, Stod, witnessed many friends being killed and wounded.
Fellow corpsman and good friend Lenny Chesley, a Red Sox fan from North Uxbridge, Mass., was mortally wounded that spring. Adams had to administer first-aid to his best friend on that combat base, Jim Tucker, who was caught in a mortar attack and had parts of his elbow and hip ripped away.
Like many combat veterans, Adams came home addicted to pain killers and unprepared to handle a world without the intensity of war. He worked for the state health department inspecting alcohol breath testers, and he was an actor. He drank, used illegal drugs, lost a couple of marriages and really didn't get his life moving in the right direction until August 1985, when he vanquished his addictions and started working toward his career as a counselor with a practice in Lombard and a master's degree in social work from Loyola University.
Adams, noting the issues of suicide, substance abuse and homelessness faced by some veterans, was the force behind the founding of the Midwest Shelter For Homeless Veterans, a transitional home and training facility that opened in 2007 in Wheaton. He also wrote a one-man play, "Place of Angels," about his life in Vietnam, which opened to critical acclaim in 2000.
A charity performance of that play starring veteran New York actor Jeff Still will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at the McAninch Arts Center at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn to raise funds for the shelter in Wheaton. To buy a $50 ticket or find out more about the show, call (630) 942-4000 or visit atthemac.org. To find out more about the shelter, visit helpaveteran.org.
The special performance will be made even more meaningful because Adams' long-lost friend Tucker will be in the audience for the first time.
When Adams left Vietnam in the spring of 1969, he never saw or had any contact with his brothers from the battlefield for more than 30 years. Only recently have they been reunited. Tucker, a retired Marine and current carpenter, has read the play, but this will be the first time he'll see the actor playing Adams describe the emotional day when Tucker was nearly killed.
In addition to his counseling practice in Lombard, Adams often spends 50 or 60 hours a week working with the shelter, which also was championed by DuPage County Board member Dirk Enger, a union ironworker from Winfield who is a Marine combat veteran from the first Gulf War. The facility, a 117-year-old home on a residential street, gets funding from the county and from the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as from fundraisers and donations.
Since the home, which houses five veterans in three bedrooms, opened in 2007, 41 veterans have "graduated" from the program, Adams says. In addition to making sure the veterans stay clean and sober, the center provides job training, financial education and other tools to help them live independently. Adams says most residents spend between six and nine months at the home.
"It gives them a chance to come back from the dead, really," says Adams, who knows a bit about comebacks himself and now lives in Winfield with his wife of 13 years, Laura Lee, and says he enjoys time spent with her three grown children and three grandchildren.
The war he desperately wanted to avoid as a teenager remains a key part of his life today.
"It defined my life in many ways," Adams says. "From the problems when I came home to the work I do now."