NEW YORK — The last time Gwen Adams saw her son alive, he was wearing his favorite red pajamas.
It was a March morning in 2017. She left the house to run some errands.
When Gwen returned she knew immediately that something was off.
“I couldn’t find Corey. Then I noticed his glasses were still here. His keys were here,” she recounts to me on the phone from her home in Milwaukee.
Gwen drove around the neighborhood, checking to see if her son had walked to the nearby bank. That afternoon they were supposed to go to one of Corey’s doctor appointments.
He had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from his last combat deployment to Afghanistan.
“He just started not being himself. He said, ‘I just don’t feel right,'” Gwen says. “I noticed he was drinking a little more. He had stopped doing the things he enjoyed like fishing and cooking.”
After two hours she called the police. Gwen and her husband told them that Corey was an Air Force veteran and had PTSD. They filed a missing persons report.
For days, she says, they went back and forth with the Milwaukee Police, frustrated they did not launch a search for Corey because he was an adult.
More than a week after Corey disappeared, with friends and family desperately flooding Facebook with messages about Corey, Gwen convinced a local television station to run a story about his disappearance.
But the attention came too late. 18 days after he went missing, Corey’s body was found in a local pond.
“It’s just been devastating,” Gwen says, vividly recounting the days following Corey’s disappearance two years ago.
Looking for a solution in Washington
“We have 20 to 22 veterans that take their life every single day,” says Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a combat veteran who spent 23 years in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard. “And if we can find a way to prevent that we certainly need to explore those options.”
Ernst and New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan are spearheading a bipartisan bill to help implement a “Green Alert” system in every state, trying to save the lives of veterans like Corey Adams.
Between 11 and 20% of veterans who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD in any given year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. It’s a significant risk factor for suicide.
Similar to the Amber Alert emergency response system for missing children, which the federal government helped states create, a Green Alert would help locate missing at-risk veterans.
“Our job as civilians, from my perspective,” says Hassan, “is to work every day to make our country worthy of the sacrifices that our servicemen and women have made for us.”
Their bill is based on the success of the Green Alert system in Wisconsin, which because the first state in 2018 to implement one after the Adams family pressed the state legislature to make sure his death was not in vain.
So far, only Delaware and Iowa have followed Wisconsin’s lead, passing legislation to create a state Green Alert system. A House bill to create a national Green Alert system failed to make it out of the Judiciary Committee in the last Congress.
Since Wisconsin’s Green Alert went into effect last year it’s been implemented seven times. Six of the veterans alerted were found safe within a day or two after local media reported on their disappearances. One died by suicide.
PTSD risk factors
Combating PTSD also requires looking beyond the stereotypes about the condition.
If you talk to civilians about their perceptions of PTSD, they’ll likely think it affects mostly men, that it’s related almost entirely to combat, that it always leads to suicidal behavior and that it’s a given if someone joins the military.
And they’d be wrong.
Service members are more likely to have PTSD, but it’s common in the general population as well. And you don’t have to be in a war zone to develop the disorder: In the United States, car accidents are one of the leading causes of PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While there is a correlation between trauma, PTSD and suicide, the relationship is actually poorly understood and requires more research.
“Because we focus so much on our men veterans we don’t oftentimes think of women as being veterans,” Ernst tells me, discussing the importance of focusing on PTSD in the women who make up 17% of the military.
Women are more than twice as likely to experience PTSD than men, whether they’re in the military or not. If they are in the military, their diagnosis could stem from a number of experiences, including traumatic events in combat, but also from feeling socially isolated or being the victim of sexual assault.
Almost a quarter of women in the Veterans Affairs health care system reported being sexually assaulted while in the military, but the civilian statistics are also shockingly high. One-sixth of the general population, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, has been sexually assaulted.
How the civilian populations and politicians relate to the military and the wars they fight also plays a role. Negative public opinion of a conflict and the politicization of the military can negatively affect service members and contribute to PTSD.
“They’re not the ones making the decision,” Ernst says. “The decision lies at the top most reaches of our country, whether it’s the president or Congress”
“It’s … very American to disagree about some things and have pretty strong opinions,” Hassan says. “We have to let our warfighters know that when they take that step to stand up for the rest of us to make enormous sacrifices to keep us safe, that we will have their backs here at home.”
Not in vain
Gwen Adams keeps a picture of the Milwaukee Police Department’s Green Alert procedures on her phone.
“It’s posted at the police academy and all police stations and at the part of shift where (police officers are briefed) they would be notified,” if there’s a Green Alert in effect, Gwen says.
If a person meets the clearly outlined criteria to be considered a missing at-risk veteran, a police officer must immediately broadcast a description of the veteran, contact their shift manager and request a sergeant to the scene. The procedures detail the chain of command responsible for initiating and monitoring a Green Alert until a missing veteran is found.
“At least they have a chance. If nobody is looking for them, they don’t,” Gwen says.
“Had this been in place my son would probably still be here.”