In 1966, as the Vietnam war was escalating, Bob Adams and a buddy decided they should enlist in the navy together, thinking the two would learn a trade. “I was a year out of high school, and I really wasn’t going anywhere and had no plans to get an education,” says Adams, who grew up in Scottsdale, on the far southwest side. “I had no money and not a lot of skills. I had an uncle who had been a corpsman and came home from World War II. He had served aboard an aircraft carrier and became a successful optometrist in Chicago. So I thought I would be following his footsteps. I thought joining the navy would mean that the worst that would happen is that I’d be offshore, aboard a ship.”
The fact that the navy accepted Adams even though he was legally blind in his left eye should have tipped him off that things weren’t going to be that easy. “Three weeks after I signed up, they had a day where you choose what you will work as,” he says. “I came back to my barracks that night and told my chief petty officer that I was going to be a corpsman. He was enraged because he knew what that meant: most of us trained in those days ended up in the Marine Corps on the ground in Vietnam.”
After 17 months of training as a corpsman, or medic, Adams landed near the North Vietnamese border. He started seeing casualties almost immediately. “My job was to be the first person on the scene when someone was hurt or wounded, to administer first aid to ease the trauma and get that person back to medical help that could actually save their lives,” he says. The only way to deal with the carnage was to become numb. “One minute someone’s here and the next minute they’re gone,” he says. “That’s traumatic enough. But when you can’t stop to do anything about it but have to keep going–that adds to it.”
The only emotion Adams could feel was anger, and the Vietnamese people bore the brunt of it. “When I first got there, it was more of a traditional war. There were no real civilians. The longer I was there, we moved further south to the area around Da Nang, where we began to encounter civilians and Vietcong guerrillas. There came a point for a lot of us when we just didn’t make the distinction anymore. I began to feel as though everyone was a VC. People you’re working with during the day and night, some of those same people were planting mines on the roads and getting into firefights with us.” One day a group of soldiers, including a close friend, was killed by a land mine. “Two old women were seen running away,” he says. “It was things like that which would make it hard to distinguish who was with us and who was not.”
After a year in Vietnam, Adams was sent back to the U.S. and completed his tour at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. He moved back in with his parents and enrolled at Lewis University in Romeoville. But like many veterans, he started drinking and doing drugs to deal with his experience, which no one wanted to hear about. “I think people were confusing the war with the warrior,” he says. “I would talk for a few minutes and get an uneasy reaction from people, so I just stopped talking.”
After earning a BA in political science, Adams landed a job as a Breathalyzer inspector for the Illinois Department of Public Health. “It was a great job for a drunk.” In 1974 he started to see a therapist at the urging of a sympathetic girlfriend, and little by little he began to open up about what he’d seen. “I began to take some more risks with some newer friends, and I got more positive reactions,” he says. But the stories he shared were what he calls the “lighter” ones, and he was still drinking and getting high on a regular basis.
Adams discovered acting after a friend cast him in a children’s play, which led to some parts in non-Equity productions and a few commercials and TV appearances, including a stint on the locally filmed 1980s cop show Lady Blue playing “a guy whose brain was rotted away from alcohol and drugs and thought he was a possum.” But while he was enjoying modest success as an actor, his personal life was unraveling, with one divorce under his belt and another one on the way. He decided to phase out the controlled substances.
By 1985 he was clean and working part-time at alcohol- and drug-rehab programs in Chicago. “The more I learned about it, the more interested I became,” he says. After earning a master’s degree in social work from Loyola University in 1995, he got a job as a counselor at mental health agencies in west suburban Warrenville, where he lives. Three years go he opened a private practice; some of his patients are veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “I think I had always wanted to do this work–to work with veterans,” he says. “Even before I got sober, probably.”
Meanwhile Adams’s acting and professional lives were merging. In 1993 he served as technical adviser for Famous Door Theatre Company’s production of the Vietnam drama Shrapnel in the Heart. Finally people wanted to hear about the war. Two years later he did it again for Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s production of Tracers and met playwright Will Kern, who encouraged him to write about his experiences. Adams credits Kern with cracking the whip to get him to write his new one-man play, Place of Angels, which opens next week. “He would say, ‘Doc, is there anything you’re not writing about? What are you afraid to talk about? What are the things you don’t want people to know? Write them. Tell us.'”
Though Adams was able to write about his experience, Jeff Still performs his words onstage. One incident described in the play occurred near the end of his year in Vietnam, while he was working at a clinic that provided medical aid for civilians. “Two teenage girls were stealing bandages,” probably to sell to the VC, Adams says. “I snapped and pulled out my .45 and made them get on their knees and plead that I wouldn’t kill them. There was another corpsman there who helped calm me down. I don’t know whether I would have or not. I was pretty angry by that time, and pretty nuts.
“I don’t like telling that story. It’s just a mean story, but it’s a true story. I think there’s a lot more of the darker elements of my experiences in the play than there were in the things I was telling people about.”
Despite his scars, Adams says he has finally achieved a “normal” life. He’s happily married, and he plans to open the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans on the west side with some associates later this year. “Life is very different for me today than it was 20 years ago or 15 years ago. I have stepchildren. I have a dog. I have a yard. I’m a citizen now.”
Previews for Place of Angels take place this Friday and Saturday at 8 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells; tickets are $10. The play opens Monday at 8 and runs through May 14; tickets are $14.50 to $16.50. Call 312-943-8722.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.