John Adams vividly recalls the “06:30” phone call from his son, stationed at the U.S. Navy base in Atsugi, Japan.
“Do you have the television on?” Tom Adams said from eight hours away.
Replied the elder Adams: “You know we don’t watch the news in the morning.”
John Adams—a self-employed architect and, like his Navy officer son, a Grossmont High School graduate—recalled the rest of the chat of Sept. 11, 2001:
“He said, ‘You’d better turn the television on.’ He said, very prophetically, ‘The world is forever changed.’ He called us four times that day.”
Marilyn Adams said her son—who normally would call home once a month—phoned her at work near Lindbergh Field, warning her to go home because “you’re right by an airport.”
“Tom,” she replied, “in this building the plumbing is more hazardous than the terrorists.”
Less than two years later, another call would change their lives.
After a visit from Navy chaplains, neighbors Pete and Dianne Micklish phoned the Adamses, who were visiting their daughter, Cari, at school in Germany. The news was the worst possible.
Tom was dead.
In late March 2003, word arrived that Navy Lt. Thomas Mullen Adams had been killed in a helicopter collision over the Persian Gulf. It was the third day of the Iraq War, early in his three-year tour as a liaison officer with Britain’s Royal Navy.
Eight years later, the Adamses recall the horrific events with clarity and calm. And while they lost their son, they didn’t lose their sense of humor.
“It was the ultimate Monty Python [skit]—two air traffic control vehicles running into each other,” said Marilyn Adams, in her early 60s, recalling the early morning collision of the Sea King copters after takeoff from the HMS Ark Royal. Six others died that day, with Thomas Adams being the first U.S. Navy officer killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
A 1993 graduate of Grossmont High School, Tom Adams had attended school at Briar Patch Elementary (whose campus later was taken over by Sharp Grossmont Hospital), Murdoch Elementary and Spring Valley Middle School.
As a Foothiller, Tom was a valedictorian, Academic Decathlon team member and soccer player whom his family called “Max”—which got his attention on the soccer field as a child when “Tommy” didn’t work.
On a morning in their 3,600-square-foot home on Grossmont Mountain—designed and built by John Adams 35 years ago—the Adamses recently shared their view of the ocean—and history.
“With respect to the whole Iraq thing … we did not have positive responses to it,” John Adams said in measured tones. “It was felt that there was arrogance by the administration and woeful ignorance of the culture and what they were getting involved in.”
Marilyn Adams, recalling how the Vietnam War affected her generation and its lack of support at home, saluted Tom’s friends at the Naval Academy and in the military as “an amazing group of people … and we owe them our honor and respect and friendship.”
But she said: “I actually think some sort of national draft would be appropriate. It doesn’t have to be military. I think everyone should put a part of their lives into this country, because it’s an amazing place. But I also think that people who send other peoples’ kids off to war should do it to their own.”
The Adamses stress that they aren’t activists.
“In our situation, being politically active was not a good idea,” Marilyn said. “It’s not real helpful. … And when you get really angry, it’s not real healthy.”
But John Adams—a descendant of the early presidents and who graduated from Grossmont High in 1964—said: “When you think about the horrific implications that [the Iraq War] has with each military member lost—the sphere of how many lives that directly affects—it’s a travesty.”
In the years since Tom’s death at age 27, the parents say they have been embraced by an “incredibly wonderful” network of friends.
“The Royal Navy particularly not only effectively adopted us as their own—they continue to do so ... until this day,” John Adams said, noting that new British liaison officers at North Island Naval Air Station will “look us up and make a connection.”
“That level of care and interest and humanity—that is a very important tool.”
How do John and Marilyn Adams honor their son’s memory on special days?
“We’ll go out to Fort Rosecrans and put pennies on his headstone—which has got to drive him crazy. But it means an angel’s watching over him,” Marilyn said with a laugh. “We just go pat him on his head.”
His father said the house is peppered with parrots—recalling Tom’s favorite Monty Python sketch (attached).
“He and his buddies could recite long passages,” John said.
“A gross waste of time,” interjected his mother. “But it was really funny.” (Tom’s tombstone at Fort Rosecrans includes the inscription: “I’m just pining”—a reference to what a merchant says of the dead Norwegian blue parrot in the skit.)
In 2003, Grossmont High School named its football field after Thomas Adams, and the Point Mugu area of Naval Base Ventura County has an auditorium named for Adams.
The Adamses have doubts that America has learned the right lessons from 9/11, however.
“Tom was right,” Marilyn said. “[9/11] changed the world.”
John Adams said that day’s lessons should include “how to deal with cultures that are very different from our own.”
He said he hoped Americans would realize that “there are certain principles on which this country was founded—that are extraordinary—but they aren’t necessarily something you try to impose on someone else.”
He said he is optimistic that such lessons would be learned, “but then there are times that you really wonder.”
“It’s going to take more time to determine … Have the right things been accomplished and are people being able to truly determine their own destiny?”
Thomas Adam—still the only La Mesa-area casualty of the Afghanistan or Iraq wars—would have turned 36 on April 16 had he lived. His lifelong dream had been to fly.
“He really liked what he was doing," his father said of Tom’s Navy career, which included his final role as radar intercept officer on the carrier-based copter being used as “eyes over the horizon.”
“But we got the sense that he maybe was interested in intelligence [work],” his dad said. “It had to do with how his tour of duty went in the UK.”
His family will never know.
“That chapter got closed,” John Adams said.