PAWTUCKET — At about 5 p.m., Friday, Jan. 13, Adam Tumlinson had been making his way home to his Darlington neighborhood when he heard his cell phone jingle.
“It said, ‘Restricted,’ so I was very hesitant to answer it,” Tumlinson stated recently between sips on a coffee at an Armistice Boulevard doughnut shop. “I usually don’t answer numbers I don’t recognize, but for some reason I picked it up anyway.”
He was mighty glad he did. On the other end was U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, who had called to ask the 29-year-old former Rhode Island Army National Guard specialist and Iraq War veteran if he would be his guest at President Barack Obama’s “State of the Union” address in Washington, D.C.
“I was shocked, absolutely speechless,” Tumlinson insisted. “Finally, I guess I said, ‘Yes, I’d be honored.’ He just answered, ‘Good.’ He kept talking, and I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I asked him, ‘Why ME?’ He could have asked so many others, but he just told me, ‘This is a way to thank you for all of your years of service in defending our country.’
“I’m still amazed by it,” he added. “I flew in the morning of the President’s address (Tuesday, Jan. 24) and came home Wednesday night. What a trip!”
Sitting in the House of Representatives chamber’s upper gallery with all the other guests that night, Tumlinson listened intently to what the Commander in Chief had to say.
“It was a great speech, and I wasn’t surprised; he’s a phenomenal speaker,” he noted. “He touched on a lot of key issues that this country is currently facing. I remember looking around, and it was so surreal. I talked to a lot of people who thanked me for serving in the U.S. Army, but I don’t view myself as some kind of hero, never have.
“I told people, ‘I went for a year (to Iraq), did what I was supposed to and just came back home,” he continued. “When people thank me or shake my hand, sometimes I don’t know how to react, as I don’t view myself in that light.
“It was so worthwhile going to Washington. I didn’t sit with Congressman Cicilline, as he was on the floor with the other representatives, but the whole experience was mind-boggling. I mean, the accommodations … you should have seen the hotel! It was unbelievable.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m still coming down from it. I experienced things I never thought I would. I thought, ‘You’re sitting in the same room as the President of the United States and his Cabinet, and all of these powerful people who make decisions that affect the world.”
Tumlinson wasn’t shy about explaining how he came to be a soldier, or how he met Cicilline. He attended Davies Tech in the late 1990s, but eventually chose to enlist in the Army National Guard in 1999, before his expected graduation date in June 2000.
“I thought I needed more positive influences in my life, more discipline,” he offered.
Born in Plattsburgh, N.Y. before his parents’ move to Pawtucket when he was young, Tumlinson traveled to Fort Jackson, S.C. for basic training, then returned to Davies to complete his senior year.
Not long after receiving his diploma, he was shipped to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. for individual training in construction engineering.
Six months later, he flew back home to engage in typical once-a-month National Guard duty with the 861st Engineer Co., based in East Greenwich, but then discovered in 2005 his unit would be deployed to Iraq in June.
Little did he know he was heading to Ar Ramadi in the Anbar Province, reported by CNN as the most dangerous place to be worldwide.
“They had re-classified our unit to combat engineering; beforehand, we were known as combat support,” he indicated. “Basically, we went from being trained for heavy equipment construction (rebuilding demolished sites) to qualifying in demolition/explosives.
“When we got there, we were manning observation posts, doing route security and clearance with the QRF (Quick Reaction Force); that just means we were reacting to certain situations and issues along main supply routes.
“I saw a lot of horrible things going on there, but the single hardest moment was seeing my best friend after he was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device) in the winter of ‘05,” he added. “I went to see him in the base hospital, and he was burned from head to toe. I felt so helpless.”
The good news: His buddy is still alive, and the two remain in touch.
Upon his return in June 2006, he resumed his National Guard obligations and began searching for a job. Much to his chagrin, no one was hiring, despite the fact Tumlinson is the proud owner of several military laurels.
They include, among others, medals for Army Commendation; Good Conduct; Reserve Components Achievement; Iraqi Campaign; and Global War on Terrorism Service. He also has garnered two National Defense Service medals.
“Like a lot of veterans, I came home from Iraq and found it tough to transition and establish what you’d call a ‘normal life’” said Tumlinson, who mentioned he has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I have a passion for helping fellow vets get back on their feet when they come home.
“You know, it’s hard to assimilate the proper way of getting back into society; that said, I’ve had my own struggles. That’s why I want to work with other veterans. I was hoping I could do that for a living. I attended countless veterans job fairs, joined numerous veterans employment groups and – while doing this – I met the Congressman’s veterans reps.”
It was at such a fair at the Warwick Armory when he and Cicilline began chatting, and almost immediately “hit it off.
“Nobody was hiring,” he noted. “I think some of it had to do with the economy, but also because I was a veteran; I have no idea why. I was, like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! I busted my hump defending this country, and there are no jobs available?’”
Just a few weeks ago, Tumlinson finally landed one as an informational technologist in Providence – he calls it “for the organization of my dreams,” but wouldn’t delve further.
“Two weeks into it, Congressman Cicilline called me to congratulate me, and that’s when he asked me to attend the ‘State of the Union’ as his guest,” he grinned. “Like I said, I was floored.
“I’d love to work with veteran-affiliated organizations,” he added. “I know what they’ve been through. I can relate to it, and I take pride in the fact that I’m trying to give back. Down the road, what I’d really like to do is go back to school (he has been attending the University of Rhode Island at night, but took this winter semester off) and finish up my degree in communications. I’d like to use that to help transition fellow veterans back into society.
“You know, it’s tough to go from one extreme to another. Out in the field, you have only one concern – survival. Then you come home and the average person has no idea of what it’s like over there. They’re more worried about petty things, like paying the mortgage or rent or deciding on what car they want to buy.
“From my perspective, it all seems pretty petty. It’s frustrating to me to see people worrying about things that I would deem unimportant.”
Tumlinson revealed that Cicilline is in the process of trying to help veterans like him.
“He has started a veterans’ advisory group which brings them together to discuss issues that affect them, things like housing, health care, employment, mental health and education,” he said. “He’s co-sponsored the Veterans Employment Transition Act, and that expands incentives to businesses that hire vets.
“The Congressman also has urged the Secretary of Defense to provide access for rehabilitation under Tri-Care Health for TBIs (traumatic brain injuries).”
He stated he not only suffers from PTSD, has since 2006, but also incurred some hearing loss due to “the abundant gunfire.
“It’s been a daily struggle since I returned, and from seeing my friend (so badly burned),” he said. “I saw so many horrific things overseas.”
When asked if he’s surprised he was diagnosed with PTSD, he explained, ‘A little, because I’m the type of person who wants to take care of things on my own. I want to let you know that I’m managing it the best I can (without medication), and I think I’m doing well.
“It’s my dream to someday become more involved with these veterans organizations, help individuals find and maintain occupations they want to pursue and manage their issues more easily,” he said. “I’d like to see them all lead more productive, healthy lives.”