Man in Motion: Graduating Student Veteran Overcomes Disability to Offer Support to Fellow Veterans


By Tom McLaughlin

For Adam Klein, the message is simple – albeit one that may not be so easy to see.

“When people have a sense of failure or despair, they need to know that there is always a chance for a new beginning,” says the graduating Rutgers University–Camden senior. “Life is whatever you want it to be.”

Abiding by that principle, the Air Force veteran will graduate from Rutgers–Camden on May 21 with a bachelor’s degree in social work. Equipped with a degree, Klein plans to continue his mission providing guidance and support to disabled veterans. It’s a niche that he is uniquely qualified to serve, having personally dealt with many of the emotional and physical challenges that they face.

“It’s a vulnerable population, especially for the men and women returning home,” says the Clementon resident. “I understand what they are going through and can offer that support.”

As Klein recalls, in 2006, he was serving in the Air Force as a military police officer at Peterson Air Force Base Air Force Base in Colorado. About his five months into his assignment, he received a vaccine in preparation for his impending deployment to Turkey. Three weeks later, he would suffer complications that would leave him a paraplegic and fighting for his life.

As he vividly recounts, he was walking to his car one evening when his arm suddenly went numb. By the time that he arrived back at his living quarters on base, the numbness had spread to his leg. Growing increasingly nervous, he called the police, who, despite him being an officer, thought that he might be intoxicated and administered a breathalyzer test. When the test came back negative, they knew that his health was in danger.

klein1-copy“I could only talk to a point,” recalls Klein. “I started making these gurgling noises, which I later found out was because I was losing my capacity to breathe.”

After spending a week in a coma, Klein awoke to find that he could only move his eyes. Diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare inflammatory disease that causes injury to the spinal cord, he spent the next several weeks in an intensive care unit before being transferred to Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange.

After five months of intensive physical therapy, he was discharged home, where he was dependent on a wheelchair and his parents for many of his daily, basic needs.

“I honestly believed that I was going to get better and, after 18 months, I would be medically discharged and go back in the service,” he says.

Around that time, Klein decided that, since he was spending much of his time watching television, he should apply himself. He began taking online courses toward an associate’s degree in human services from the University of Phoenix.

Klein was also determined to regain some mobility, despite his neurologist telling him that he was “as good as you could get.” He promptly hired another neurologist and stayed committed to his physical therapy. Slowly but surely, he regained movement in his left arm and leg, but remained weak on his right side. When his insurance plateaued, he resigned to paying for his treatments out of pocket.

After four and a half years, Klein progressed to using a walker, then to a quad cane, a single-point cane, which he would use to walk long distances, and a brace on his leg.

Klein’s studies paid off too; he graduated from the University of Phoenix in 2010 and added an associate’s degree in criminal justice from Gloucester County College in 2012. He then enrolled at Rutgers–Camden the following year to pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work. After conquering his own challenges, he had decided that it was time to lend a hand to others.

“I have always wanted to do more to help people,” says Klein. “It’s where my heart is.”

As Klein continued his education, he never realized that he was eligible for the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program, a range of services designed to help veterans with disabilities prepare for and engage in gainful employment. On the recommendation of a professor, he spoke with Fred Davis, director of the Office of Veterans Affairs at Rutgers–Camden, who outlined the benefits and assisted him through the application process.

Klein says that meeting Davis was “pivotal,” becoming acquainted not only with the available resources, but the commitment of the Rutgers–Camden office, and its network of affiliated personnel throughout campus, to make veterans a priority and provide a variety of services, initiatives, and programs specific to their needs and interests. He was also introduced to the camaraderie of the student veterans on campus, who would become a vital support network.

In addition to his studies, Klein gained invaluable hands-on experience toward a prospective career assisting disabled veterans. During his 2013-14 winter break, he was one of 12 Rutgers–Camden students who studied abroad in Israel, researching the country’s sophisticated social-welfare system. According to Klein, he went on the trip because he knew the group would be visiting agencies that serve individuals with disabilities, and wanted to assess how these agencies differ from such institutions in the United States.

For the past year, Klein has also volunteered in the psychosocial rehabilitation program at the Veterans Affairs office in Philadelphia, helping veterans with mental illness regain their independence. He notes that he often works with patients in need of geriatric or polytrauma care, who are often comforted when they realize that he, too, has endured similar challenges.

Upon graduating in May, Klein plans to pursue a master’s degree in counseling in order to further prepare him to fill a niche for the veteran population. He is also writing a book to document his experiences and offer a guide to others facing personal difficulties.

“My attitude has always been, ‘I can, I will, I must,’” says Klein. “When all else fails, you might be having a bad day, but you can always make someone else’s day better.”

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