When America launched the war on Iraq in 2003, Adam Morse was a specialist with the U.S. Army, driving a wrecker, towing damaged Humvees and other heavy equipment out of Nazaria and other combat zones.
He was just 17, and still in high school, when he joined the National Guard in 1999. His dad had to sign the paperwork for him, and Adam says he never expected he'd be in battle.
After he came home, Adam says the weight of his experiences and lack of understanding by the civilians around him led him to abuse alcohol and drugs.
He got married and bought a home, but his addiction grew so bad he wound up losing the house and growing estranged from his wife and three young children. Then he found Veteran Homestead, got sober and turned his life around.
"Yesterday was 11 months for me, and I couldn't get 11 minutes before" Adam said of his newfound sobriety. "It was bad… so this place has, I believe, saved my life and … saved my family."
Veteran Homestead is a community of 20 two-bedroom, one bath homes on 10 wooded acres in central Massachusetts designed to help young men and women having difficulties recovering from their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. The facility has a clubhouse-like rehabilitation center with state-of-the-art equipment, including a gym, wave pool and therapy room. There's even a pool table that provides recreation and also can help improve hand-eye coordination.
The Homestead was built by Leslie Lightfoot, a former Army medic who spent three years at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany during the Vietnam War. Leslie has three children who've all done multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan and has dedicated her life to helping service members struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury or war-related substance abuse issues.
"When people come home from combat, I've worked with PTSD for 30-plus years, almost 40 years now, so I know you can't see and do certain things and expect to come back and just pick up where you left off.
"People don't understand they’re the walking wounded," she says of the 200,000-plus who've come home with PTSD or traumatic brain injury. "They may not be missing an arm or a leg, but they may not have the range they had before, may not have the ability to think, may be quicker with anger."
She says the Homestead "needed to be done. It's that simple. Every time there's a hole in the net, the safety net, and you see it, you develop something to plug that gap."
Veteran Homestead is actually the name of Leslie's nonprofit organization, which opened six facilities in all, including Veteran Victory Farm, built on 80 acres in New Hampshire. There, veterans with severe emotional or psychological issues or addictions get agricultural therapy in a quiet, rural setting. They're responsible for feeding and caring for dozens of animals, including goats, cows, horses, pigs and chickens, and tend to crops, as well while getting counseling and help to transition back to the civilian world.
Adam Morse spent time at the farm before moving to the Homestead, and says he hopes to buy another home of his own soon, while admitting his struggles aren't over.
"My experience (in Iraq) really affected me."
"Yeah, to this day. Every day. It's with me every day… and probably will be for the rest of my life," Adam says when asked if he saw things he can't shake.
Another resident, Joe Rosbury, just moved in a couple weeks ago. He spent four and a half years as an Army medic, including two tours in Afghanistan, and came home with PTSD and other issues. He says he would be homeless if he hadn't moved into his parent's house and is incredibly grateful to have a place he and his wife can afford, especially with a baby due any day now (residents are asked to pay one-third their salary or benefit toward housing, typically a fraction of what the home would cost on the open market).
"It makes me realize how much not just my service, but everybody's service, means to the general public and the community," Joe says. "That there are people that want to help us get back in the civilian world, that’s just huge, huge to me."
"To come here with people that have similar stories, it's pretty awesome. To have that, keep that Army camaraderie, military camaraderie during the transition to civilian life… it's very helpful."
Leslie says her goal is to help as many veterans as possible and when asked how long she'll do it, she says "as long as it takes."