A Web site helps welcome vets home

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Bryan Adams (left) with other members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America at the studios of NBC’s “Today” show in New York.

Army Spec. Bryan Adams saw the signs of trouble.

People were shuffling away as he and other members of his unit walked down a street in the Iraqi city of Tikrit in October 2004.

Off to the side, two children sitting on a curb appeared frightened, as though they knew what was about to happen.

"I looked at their huge eyes, literally took five steps, then heard the gunfire," said Adams, 25, of Palmyra. "I was hit in the left leg, stumbled a little, and started running."

Bullets peppered a wall next to him. One hit his hand before he got around a corner "out of the kill zone."

That moment - and other instances of combat in 2004 and 2005 - are seared into Adams' memory and left him feeling different and isolated when he returned home. No one understood what he and other soldiers had been through, he thought.

"It seemed like friends I knew my whole life had changed, but it was me that changed," Adams said.

After feeling lost and drinking to "calm down," he found veterans who understood his problems on a Web site - communityofveterans.org - launched last year by two nonprofits, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the Ad Council.

Vets visiting the site seek help and encouragement from fellow soldiers who have had similar adjustment problems and who can provide tips in live online discussion forums on how to get through the experience.

"It's a safe place where combat vets get together to talk about things they wouldn't talk about with family," said Tom Tarantino, 31, a legislative associate with IAVA in Washington and a former Army captain who served in combat in Iraq.

"They can talk about PTSD [post traumatic stress syndrome], about trouble with the Veterans Administration, trouble talking with the kids and wives, trouble sleeping. The veterans community has taken over. They're helping each other."

Up to 2,000 vets a day - including many across the Philadelphia region - visit communityofveterans.org, which was started on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Some have been drawn by recent national radio spots or television commercials, including one where Adams portrays a soldier coming home from war.

In the ad, he walks through a silent, deserted airport and is alone on vacant city streets when a veteran in civilian clothes appears, extends a hand, and says, "Welcome home, man." Instantly, the streets are filled with people and noise. The soldier is no longer by himself.

"You change over there; you lose part of yourself," said Adams, a prebusiness major at Rutgers University in Camden. "I joined the military when I was 18, and I was in until I was 21.

"I hadn't even learned basic life skills," he said. "But I've accepted all this and decided to take what I have done and who I am now, and use that to benefit others instead of self-destructing."

When he left the Army, Adams remembered still being "hyper-alert, constantly on edge and restless. I wasn't interested in the same things," he said. "Everyone else was having fun, but I couldn't feel anything. I had no emotions."

Adams attended a program at the University of Massachusetts aimed at helping veterans adjust to civilian life. But he said he "felt like Frankenstein" on campus.

Soldiers' feelings of isolation are common after a tour in combat zones, said New Jersey National Guard Sgt. Marie Exley, 30, of Voorhees, who worked as a TV production assistant and researcher in Philadelphia.

"It's a typical thing you go through; there's nothing wrong," said Exley, a broadcast journalist for the Guard in Tikrit from June 2004 to November 2005 and in Baghdad from July 2007 to August 2008. "I dissociated myself from my normal friends when I got home.

"I didn't really do anything and had no interest to be among people."

Exley, whose reports appeared on the Armed Forces network, Pentagon Channel, and some local TV stations, said she found she "related more naturally to other soldiers."

She and Adams found out about the IAVA last year and began spending time on the Web site, where they learned about the experiences of veterans who were ahead of them in readjusting and who could offer useful advice.

"They would post items describing how they got off the path of self-destruction," said Adams, who lost friends in Iraq. "They would talk about sleeping medications that worked. They would form groups and call each other on the phone."

In New Jersey, Adams showed up for a casting call for the IAVA's TV commercial last fall. "I took it seriously because I knew how beneficial it would be," he said. "They gave me a powerful voice to use my story to help others.

"For a long time, I didn't feel I was back," he said. "It was like I was on leave, waiting to get called back. But I feel like I've returned now. I'm on the right path."

Exley also feels better about the future. Her voice is in the radio ad, and she is one of the extras in the TV spot. "I still see the faces of the kids" in Iraq, said Exley, who attracted them because of her filming.

"They just want to be normal kids playing in the streets, and they're caught up in the middle of the violence going on there."

She also recalls scary times when the soldiers with her came under attack while clearing buildings or driving through cities.

Those psychological wounds will heal with time, said the IAVA's Tarantino, who has his own scars. "Psychological injuries are just that - injuries," he said.

The Web site "was created to acknowledge this and to tell people that others just like them have gotten through it'" Tarantino said. "There's treatment, and it's effective."

 


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.