A Grieving Sister’s Mission To Honor Her Combat Veteran Brother’s Memory

Adam Nadiak

On April 1, 2016, America lost a young veteran. On April 1, 2016, I lost my brother and my mother lost her son. My family lost one of its most accomplished members.

Adam Nadiak joined the United States Army right out of high school. He had always wanted to be a soldier. He would have probably joined the Air Force because he loved to fly, had it not have been for his wanting to be just like his role model and grandfather, a World War II era Army veteran.

As a child, I knew my grandfather was a World War II veteran and I always wondered when I would get to hear the classic “war stories” kids usually got to hear from their grandfathers. He never brought up the war. Adam was probably one of the few people my grandfather ever told his war stories to and he only told these stories when he found out my brother was enlisting in the Army. He didn’t want Adam to enlist but that didn’t stop Adam.

Adam manned the border of North and South Korea for a year. He drove into the city on the weekends to train with some of the most distinguished martial artists in the world. He served as a Sergeant in the Afghanistan War. He flourished in the military and was Soldier of the Year for the 67th Signal Battalion in 2005. He later worked as a contractor in Iraq before securing a position with Flight Safety International as an IT Security/Disaster Recovery Analyst.

Adam’s life in the military can be summed up in a few sentences. Not because of the lack of content but because, like my grandfather, he didn’t tell many stories. He left home, served, and came back. It took him a while to get back on track, but he got there. At least, that’s what we saw on the outside.

Veterans have gone through rigorous training to become America’s strongest individuals and often struggle with letting their weaknesses be seen.

In his 10 years as a civilian, Adam was training for his master’s belt in Soo Bahk Do martial arts, was an active sport shooter, and enjoyed golf, but he also tried to hide the powerful remnants of war that challenged him daily. He was 30 years old when we lost him.

The first glance I had into his altered state of mind was when Adam first returned home. I remember asking him to use a guitar he had signed by all of the members of a popular band, Linkin Park like it was yesterday. I was going to a comic book signing, for the lead singer of another popular band who had written a comic series. That singer was signing his work at a local store. I asked Adam if he wanted me to get his guitar signed by them, as he also liked them. I thought the value would go up. I wanted to make his guitar more valuable. He responded with anger. Why would I ask him to do that? That was his guitar! Of course not! A simple “No, I’d rather not. Let’s keep it to one band,” would have sufficed. My mom looked at me and told me to not worry about it and to just bring my comic books.

That was the first time I realized he wasn’t the same Adam I knew.

He, of course, acted like nothing had happened a few minutes later and everything was fine. I apologized, he accepted it, and the day went on. I was in my early teens and didn’t think the very scary sounding “PTSD” that soldiers faced could ever affect my brother. He was home and didn’t have much to say about any terrifying experiences he may have encountered. I hardly even knew what it was. But there was definitely something different about him.

I eventually heard stories of him getting into confrontations with family members. He told us how broken he felt when his own family told him they were scared of him. “All I wanted was his hat,” he told us after visiting his grandfather’s home after he had passed. According to Adam, he was kicked out by his family – for what reason, I don’t know. Our family is divided by grudges. I couldn’t ask them even if I wanted to. Do I believe this is all that happened? I’ll never know. Do I blame or resent my family? No. Especially without knowing the truth, which I never will.

Unwilling to get passed the stigma of mental health issues, some people may have been scared of him. A soldier on the loose? Sure, terrifying. If you don’t know what is wrong with a person, how can you protect yourself? If the person won’t tell you what he’s got going on in his head, how can you know what to expect from him? Who knows what he has done or seen? His outburst over his guitar certainly scared me. But, he was my brother and fear easily goes away the moment you sit down and watch TV together. I can’t think for other people.

As time went on, he seemed to be doing better. He didn’t have many outbursts, got a job, and went on with his life. A few years later, Adam started complaining about his back. He sought medical care from the VA and was prescribed painkillers to help ease his pain.

Prescription painkillers aren’t a simple medication.

Quickly, he developed an addiction. One didn’t do it anymore so he self-medicated with two. Two didn’t do it anymore so he took three and “it’s fine, you can do that. See? Do I look weird to you?” His addiction became a normal part of our lives. So much so, that I don’t even remember when we realized it was a problem. One day, normal conversations just happened to involve our wants to admit him to rehab. But he was managing it. He looked okay. He had his job, seemed to function as we weren’t hearing any complaints, and he didn’t want to lose it either. He was doing great. He kept in touch with his family. Everything was fine. I didn’t even know until two years ago the reason for his pain. He had fallen out of a hummer at some point during his service. That is all I know. That’s all he ever told us and there was an air about him that made you subconsciously know not to ask any more questions.

I had gotten into a car accident myself not long after he told me this and injured my own back. He offered me a few Vicodin. “Here. These will help with the pain,” he said. “Adam. I’m not taking Vicodin. I have regular medication from my own doctor. I’m not messing with that stuff. The pain isn’t that bad.” “No, really,” he said. “Hold onto them. If you need them, take one.” I took them from his hand and never took a single pill. I realize now that maybe he was trying to get them out of his possession or perhaps he was trying to share his vice with me-if I knew what it felt like, maybe someone in his family would understand.

A few weeks later he called asking for them back. “Do you still have those pills?” He sounded desperate. “My back hurts, do you have any left? I should have said no. But instead I said, “I have all of them.” I didn’t want him to think I took any. I was trying to be a role model – a position he’d always held in my eyes. “Great. Can I come pick them up?” “No.” My way of showing him I wasn’t messing around.“Jill, please. I ran out and I really need them.” A few back and forths later, I caved and he came for them. He truly sounded like he couldn’t handle the pain and I felt awful for him. I held them in my hand and said, “Adam, if anything happens to you whether it be tonight or years from now, I’ll blame myself. Whatever happens-you can get in a car accident and I’ll feel like I did it.” “Jill, stop,” he laughed. “Nothing is going to happen.”  I joked and told him a car accident could happen to anyone and he couldn’t promise that. I gave him his pills back.

As far as I knew, after that Adam was getting his act together.

He was taking his pills the way they were prescribed. He looked great and was seeing a therapist to control his PTSD. There was little talk about anxiety issues, and he had an even better job. He got his own apartment after having had lived in a place our family let him stay in for years. His life was looking great. We knew this because our family did everything short of following him ourselves to make sure he was on the right path. We did what even I thought was an excessive amount of watching him. Borderline, obnoxious; overkill.

Adam passed away from an overdose a little under a year after that interaction. I may have lied to him though, as I don’t blame myself for it. There are many people and organizations I could blame, but I don’t blame myself and I hesitate to put the blame on anyone else, not even my brother. Adam fell into a situation he didn’t expect to fall into. I think many people join the military thinking, “I’m either going to die or come back safe and sound.” Why we have this mentality may be an act of denial or it may be a lack of awareness.

A month before he passed, Adam was hospitalized. A doctor told my mother that although stable, Adam needed to come back to the hospital soon because given where he served and from what Adam told him about burning chemicals he was around, he was at a great risk for cancer. He didn’t have cancer but had he not overdosed, he may have eventually developed it. That’s something we will never know but one thing is for sure.

The moment he enlisted, he signed up for a lot more than a deployment. He signed up to fight for the rest of his life.

After his passing, I gathered his things. Among them I found letters he wrote, letters I’m not sure if he ever sent. He discussed how unworthy he was of certain people in his life, that he had dreams telling himself to commit suicide, that his anxiety kept him awake most nights. Who in the world had a clue?

Chronic injuries, mental illness including PTSD and anxiety, drug addiction, and cancer attained abroad are examples of the challenges that faced Adam and continue to face other veterans who deserve help, but do not ask for it.

In his memory and honor, I have established a scholarship through our local community college’s foundation. Adam was not a “druggie.” Adam suffered from an addiction to drugs. He didn’t exude the stereotypical persona of someone desperate for his next fix. He was an upstanding citizen who loved his country, served his country, and tried to enjoy life as much as he possibly could by loving fiercely and striving for success, but struggled with his mental health and a nagging pain that wouldn’t leave his back. He had once told me that the VA “once again” told him to take the pills until he couldn’t take the pain anymore and that surgery was “just too risky.” Truth or an excuse to continue using? I don’t know.

“I don’t know,” is a common phrase I find myself using when talking about my brother. I don’t know a lot about him, what he suffered through, or what he experienced abroad. What I do know is that other people can prevent themselves from repeating this phrase if I tell his story as loudly as I can.

I don’t want to see another family member say, “I had no clue. I didn’t know.”

I have created a scholarship in Adam’s memory. It will be awarded to a student that plans to pursue or is pursuing a field of education or career path that could enable them to help veterans in any way. Examples include: psychology, pre-med, social work, human services, veterans services, and substance abuse and behavioral disorders counseling. As long as the student can make their case for their major with their career goals, they can become eligible for this scholarship.

I have established this scholarship to bring light to the vulnerabilities of our military men and women while giving students the opportunity to pursue careers that will help these very individuals.

It is my intention that, although he is no longer here with us, he will live on for a long time and continue to serve his country by enabling students to pursue a higher education that will help those who are just like him. Through his name, our veteran community will be better received and understood by both the civilian community and their family members.

If you would like to contribute to this scholarship fund, please visit www.sunyulster.edu/donate. When asked to indicate the purpose of the gift, kindly write the Adam C. Nadiak Memorial Scholarship.

A Celebration of Life and Scholarship Fundraiser is being held on April 1 of this year at 6 p.m. at the Saint Mary’s and Saint Andrew’s Church Hall, in Ulster County, where we will be featuring food from various local restaurants. Tickets are $20 at the door. For more information visit https://www.facebook.com/events/403975443273456/

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Jillian Nadiak

Administrative Assistant to the President's Office, SUNY Ulster at Personal Blog
After graduating from SUNY New Paltz in 2015, she has done work as a daily reporter and Community Liaison for New York State Assembly member Kevin Cahill.Through her work in government, she was designated the responsibility of organizing individual flag ceremonies for each of the 40 Vietnam soldiers from Ulster County that lost their lives during the war. She now works as an Administrative Assistant to the President at SUNY Ulster where she hopes to stay and has found joy in working with the Veterans Club on campus. When she is not working she can be found writing plays about local history, reporting for a local biweekly paper, acting in community theatre, singing in her band, trying to become a martial artist, and talking about everything South Korea.
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