view counter

What Keeps Adam Keys Smiling?

Army combat veteran uses humor to talk about a difficult subject and to generate awareness of how vets don’t want to be treated differently

     It’s a packed house and the crowd is warmed up as the emcee introduces the next comic at D.C.’s celebrated Comedy Improv.
     “Please put your hands together for Adam Keys, ladies and gentlemen!”
Cheers and applause.
     As Keys climbs the stairs below stage left, the audience registers something different about him. Is it his rocking gait? His height? His outfit, maybe?
     Keys doesn’t seem to notice or care. He ignores the murmuring hum; his eyes light up and his smile beams as he takes hold of the mike with his right hand.
     “Let me just address the elephant in the room right away so we can move past it,” he suggests.
      The crowd responds with nervous giggles.
      “I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking up here and wondering, What the hell is going on with this guy?
      The crowd chuckles in agreement. “Well, let me confirm your assumptions. Yes, I am in fact … Canadian.” 
       The crowd roars. Keys has them. They are on his side, ready to prop him up if he slumps or pick him up if he falls. He does neither. He towers above them, and they respond to his ability to stand and deliver — especially his capacity to find humor while sporting two prosthetic legs and a prosthetic left arm. 
       On July 14, 2010, E-4 Specialist Adam Keys, at that time a 26-year-old U.S. Army airborne engineer in Afghanistan, was on a mission to locate and destroy improvised explosive devices placed by the Taliban along Highway-1 out of Kalat, about 80 kilometers east of Kandahar. 
      His team parked on top of one. The resulting explosion killed the four other members of Keys’ team and took both of his legs at the knees and his left arm at the elbow. There were other injuries as well, including some to his brain.
      Seven hospitals and 120-plus surgical procedures later, he is a man remade and reborn. He has many people to thank for the dreams he’s blessed to focus on now.
      “A lot of things drive me,” Keys says. “And a lot of people have been there for me to lean on — even the guys I left behind on that road in Afghanistan. For some reason I made it, and they didn’t. I feel a constant debt to them to give my best in their memory.”
     When Keys was recovering he received assistance from many sources. His family has been there throughout, and the surgical and nursing staff were outstanding, he says.
     But it was his fellow patients who saw him through the darkest times. These were soldiers who had been injured before him, many of them already dealing with the loss of their limbs.
     “They told me I would survive this, that most of my problems were going to be in holding on from the inside and not about what was missing from the exterior. That is what it is all about for me now: passing on what they taught me and hopefully being an inspiration to others to not give up and to become whatever you want to become.”
The Power of Positive Thinking
      His optimism drew author Dava Guerin to include him and his mother in her book Unbreakable Bonds: The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed. As far back as 2012, Guerin could tell that Keys was going to be a driving force for others.
      “He’s probably the most positive person I’ve ever met,” says Guerin, who for the past 30 years has been promoting and writing about positive people like George and Barbara Bush, actor Gary Sinise, pitcher Tug McGraw and politicians John Kerry and Elizabeth Dole.
      “He’s by far the funniest. When I first walked into his hospital room, he was wearing a T-shirt he had made that said, I had a blast in Afghanistan. You can’t help but be drawn into that kind of infectious spirit. And when he gets an idea to do something, it’s all or nothing.”
      When Keys was introduced to hand-cycling, he took to it like a five-year-old who gets his first bike for Christmas. He’s now raced in 10 hand-cycling marathons. When advised that swimming was good exercise, he trained until he could complete a one-mile open-water swim in the Caribbean waters off the Bahamas.
      When he learned that funding could be raised for worthy causes by mountain climbing, he didn’t settle for Sugarloaf but headed to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, raising $30,000 in pledges for three military charities: America’s Fund, Achilles International and Warrior Events, each receiving a third for their work with assisting injured, wounded and disabled vets.
      When stand-up comedian Jeff Ross visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Keys got a taste of something he had always wanted to do: comedy. 
      “I like to think I was always funny,” Keys says. “At least I wanted to be. But Jeff sat down with me and let me work with him on his routine. He showed me I had a knack for it. Now I want to do it.” 
      Keys took his comedy jones to Sam Pressler, executive director of the Armed Services Arts Partnership. Pressler’s group serves about 400 vets a year with more than 200 classes and workshops to assist all veterans with mainstreaming back into society. Several of the workshops involve writing or performing comedy.
       “Adam is the first amputee to take our stand-up comedy six-week boot camp class,” Pressler says. “And he’s great. What’s amazing is his ability to use humor to talk about a difficult subject and to generate awareness of how these vets don’t want to be treated differently. He invites the audience in instead of making them feel uncomfortable.”
      Keys has played the Improv three times now and says he’s ready to host the 2019 Oscars — since no one else wants to do it.
       “I don’t mind if it only pays a mere $15,000,” he laughs. “And they can’t ruin my career if someone digs up dirt on me. Hell, I don’t have a career.”
      He has a website — — and a petition to get him to Hollywood.
      As far as Keys being Canadian, he’s not officially Canadian anymore. But when serving in the United States Army, he was a Canadian with a green card. About 8,000 green card holders join the U.S. military every year. Keys didn’t become naturalized until he was hospitalized and recovering from his war wounds. 
      In any event, he’s a true North American hero who now lives in Annapolis. There’s a joke in there somewhere, as well as a whole lot of respect.