When the Air Force Reserves sergeant came back from a six-month deployment in Afghanistan in 2009, he had changed.
“I looked in his eyes and it was like he wasn’t himself, like he was emotionally drained,” said his mother, Gwen Adams.
Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the man who loved to fish, cook, exercise and spend time with his family, who volunteered to shovel neighbors’ sidewalks, slowly withdrew, almost as if his personality was draining away like a melting icicle.
He eventually moved out of his home and into his parents’ place in Milwaukee in October 2016 so they could keep an eye on him and take him to appointments at the Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
On the morning of March 20, 2017, Gwen Adams had to run a quick errand and she asked her oldest son if she could make him breakfast. He said no, that he would be OK. So she kissed him and told him she’d be right back.
Gwen Adams never saw her 45-year-old son again. Eighteen days later his body was discovered next to the Dineen Park lagoon.
Now the Air Force veteran, who served in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, and later in Kuwait and Afghanistan, could end up helping save the lives of other vulnerable veterans.
Frustrated by the difficulty in getting Milwaukee police to search for him, his family has pushed for a “Green Alert” similar to the Amber and Silver alerts for missing children and senior citizens. A bill creating a Green Alert system in Wisconsin unanimously passed the state Senate last week and will likely go before the Assembly next month.
While every state has Amber and Silver alerts, Wisconsin would be the first to offer a similar alert for missing vulnerable veterans.
“We’re hoping this goes national,” said state Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee), who introduced the bill. “Veterans give so much. Corey served (three) tours and he came home safe. If he made it home safe we should have done everything to make sure he was made whole.”
When Gwen Adams returned an hour later last March, her son was gone. His wallet, car keys, eyeglasses, medications and cellphone were left behind. She immediately knew something wasn’t right. A few hours later she called the 7th District police station to report her son missing and was told an officer would be sent to the home. None came and eventually she was told by police to come to the station.
She and her husband, Johnnie Adams, filed a missing persons report that evening.
“I said, ‘Can’t you put him on an emergency list?’ and she said, no,” Johnnie Adams said.
Gwen Adams called the next day and was told the officer who took their missing person’s report was off for two days and they would have to wait until she returned. They did. They told police their son suffered from PTSD, they told police the medications he was taking and that he had missed an appointment at the VA.
But because he was an adult, the family was told he didn’t meet the criteria for a critical missing person.
“All of us were upset at the reaction we got,” said Johnnie Adams, a Vietnam veteran who served three years in the Army.
Milwaukee police officials hadn’t responded to a reporter’s questions on the Adams report or their policies on missing persons as of late Monday.
In the meantime, the family made fliers with his picture to post throughout their neighborhood, fanned out in cars to search for him, posted notices on Facebook and sought help from the media. More than a week later after TV stations aired stories about the missing veteran, police arrived at the Adams home.
“They did what they should have done on the first day,” Gwen Adams said.
As each day passed, the family’s sense of dread increased. Then on April 7, Carmen Adams, a sixth-grade teacher at Metcalf Elementary School, got a phone call from a friend who heard about a body found at Dineen Park. She thought it might be her brother.
Later their worst fears were confirmed — it was Corey, identified by his fingerprints and a tattoo of a family pet, a Doberman pinscher named Georgia, over his heart.
The death certificate listed the cause of death as drowning, but his family has many questions they know will probably never be answered. Why was his body at Dineen Park? How could the good swimmer die of drowning? When exactly did he die? Was it suicide or an accident? Corey Adams’ family may never know.
But they are convinced that had police started searching for him right away, the outcome might have been much different.
Johnson first met Gwen Adams when she ran for the state Senate in 2012. After Corey Adams’ death, Johnson met with his family, who live in her Senate district. Johnson wondered if there was something she could do.
“My assistant said ‘well, there’s an Amber Alert and Silver Alert, maybe there should be some type of alert for vulnerable veterans,’” Johnson said.
Green was chosen because of the color of military uniforms and to signal a sense of urgency because a green traffic light means go.
“If Corey was in Afghanistan and came up missing, his brothers and sisters would have risked life and limb to find him, they would have searched for him until they brought him home. That’s the effort we need to do here,” Johnson said.
The Corey Adams Searchlight Act received bipartisan support in the Legislature. GOP state Rep. Joel Kleefisch is a sponsor of the bill and expects it to pass the Wisconsin Assembly and be on Gov. Scott Walker’s desk by late February.
Kleefisch noted the Silver Alert system was quickly added by the Department of Transportation to the existing Amber Alert system in the state. And considering the number of veterans suffering from PTSD, other states might adopt a Green Alert.
“I will not be surprised if we see Green Alert in every state of the union in the next three to four years,” Kleefisch said.
Gwen Adams remembers her son telling her he wanted to join the Air Force shortly after he graduated from Milwaukee Technical High School. He wanted to serve his country just as his father and both grandfathers did. Corey Adams was born while his father was in Vietnam and Corey was 6 months old before Johnnie Adams held his son in his arms.
Corey Adams served four years on active duty and then joined the 440th Air Force Reserve in Milwaukee and stayed with the unit after the base closed here, flying on weekends to North Carolina.
The flag from his casket sits in a case on a table at his parents’ home next to photos of a grinning Adams in happier times. After his body was found, his family decided he should be buried at the veterans cemetery in Union Grove.
They also decided Corey Adams should be buried in his blue Air Force uniform.
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