Sgt. Tom Adamski was sure he was going to die when both of his parachutes failed during a 1972 training jump with the 82nd Airborne Division.

He survived, but the trauma of the jump grips him to this day. Adamski was honorably discharged in 1973, but attempts at treatment failed, and his undiagnosed post-traumatic stress left him unable to work.

Thus began a multi-decade battle to put a name on his psychological pain and get his Army records changed. The battle culminated in a November decision by the Army to grant him a medical retirement and 43 years of back pay worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, Adamski's attorney, Colorado-based John Wickham, told Army Times on Tuesday.

The fateful jump set off a chain reaction of eye twitches and nervous tics that snowballed into negative performance reviews and termination of his jump status, Adamski alleged in his lawsuit against the Department of the Army. He opted for an early separation.

Like many disability claims, the 65-year-old's decision, more than four decades in the making, involved several twists and turns, big wins and big setbacks, Wickham said.

"I told him the moon and the stars and the Earth were all perfectly aligned and he was supposed to win this case," he said.

Adamski, who suffers from severe anxiety, declined to be interviewed. But he allowed his lawyer to speak to Army Times so that other service members might learn something from his story, Wickham said.

"I had this problem"

After he secured an early honorable discharge, Adamski returned to his hometown. He tried to go back to school, but he failed his courses, Wickham said.

He tried to go back to working as a tradesman, but he couldn't handle a full-time job, so his family helped out while he took temporary manual labor jobs.

Around the same time, he began seeing a doctor to treat his anxiety, but it escalated and he was hospitalized at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility. Still, no one called his symptoms PTSD, Wickham said.

"I had this problem, but no one knew what it was or could help me," Adamski told his lawyer.

By 1986, he was so incapacitated that the Social Security Administration granted him 100 percent disability, allowing him enough income to pay his bills.

For years Adamski managed his psychological pain on his own, Wickham said. He lived alone in a remote area and turned to exercise, running 10 miles every morning and every night.

He practiced yoga, he did marathons and triathlons, but the pace resulted in two knee replacements, Wickham said.

By the late 1980s, Adamski had learned more about post-traumatic stress in veterans and decided it was time to approach the Army about changing the conditions of his separation.

Rather than an honorable discharge, he wanted a service-connected medical retirement.

He started with the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, which found that his well-documented psychological issues were not undoubtedly service related.

They also couldn't find any records from the 1972 training jump incident. That was in 1989.

More than a decade later — and after a 1996 VA decision denying his PTSD claim — one of his fellow soldiers filed his own claim with the Army, including an account of watching Adamski free fall until his reserve parachute kicked in at the last second.

Adamski took that testimony to the VA, which awarded him a 70 percent disability rating with combat-related special compensation in 2004. That took care of his finances, Wickham said, but it didn't square up the real reason he left the Army.

One more shot

In 2011, he tried to open another case with the ABCMR, but the Army turned down his claim. Since Adamski's last claim, the board had implemented a rule that put a one-year limit on filing appeals to its decisions.

At that point, Adamski was ready to move his claim into civilian court. He hired Wickham in 2013, the attorney said, after a veterans advocate connected them.

Wickham drew up a brief suing then-Army Secretary John McHugh in Disctrict of Columbia court, arguing that the VA considered Adamski 100 percent disabled because of his service and that the Army should change his discharge to recognize that.

"I think this case is an injustice writ large," Wickham recalled the judge saying in a hearing.

In his brief, Wickham argued that because the one-year rule was put in place in 2006, Adamski couldn't have known that he wouldn't get another chance to argue his case. He also argued that placing limits on appeals while research and policies evolve is unjust.

"Most people get shot down at the courthouse door," he said. "We went through kind of the back door and the judge said, 'I'm going to let this case go forward.'"

Rather than let the judge rule, the Army's lawyers offered to settle the case by waiving the one-year limit, accepting Adamski's new evidence and sending him back to the ABCMR in 2015.

It had been almost 30 years since the Army had looked at his case, and in that time, PTSD research had grown by leaps and bounds, and the service had adopted a liberal policy on its rulings. 

On Dec. 1, 2016, he received the board's decision. They had decided to grant Adamski a service-connected medical retirement, retroactive to 1973.

That means hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay, Wickham said, or enough to buy a house, a car and continue providing for retirement. Wickham declined to provide a specific dollar amount.

"When he got the decision in the mail, on the front of the package it said 'Sgt. Thomas Adamski, U.S. Army Retired,'" Wickham said. "He really enjoyed seeing that."