Veteran successful in taking on PTSD
MARTINSBURG – when war is discussed, it is usually in the context of history or current events. Students learn the names of military leaders, famous battles and faraway lands. what is not typically discussed is the battle many soldiers continue to fight once they have returned to the United States.
Robert Hugee, a Vietnam veteran involved in the Tet Offensive, faced decades of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I didn’t know at the time that I was suffering from PTSD,” he said.
Journal photos by Rachel MolendaRobert Hugee, a Vietnam veteran, has made great strides in his recovery from PTSD. After 20 years, he has become an accomplished artist and loving father and husband.
Robert Hugee is pictured at 20 years old. He was drafted in 1966 and spent nine months in Vietnam.
Hugee, 20 years old at the time, said returning home after nine months of combat was difficult, because the world – his word for home – was slow compared to Vietnam.
“When you get into a situation where combat is the name of the game, things are accelerated when every waking hour you could lose or see your friend lose it or get taken out by a medical helicopter,” he said. “There was nobody in my outfit that had been to war before, so it was all brand-new.”
“It was difficult because you’re trying to make contact with a past that is no longer there,” he said of the trials of reconnecting with family and friends upon his return.
Being in combat allowed Hugee to better understand his father, who spent his life in and out of VA centers after returning from World War II.
“At the time that my father came home, he was like a different person. I didn’t understand it at the time because I was too young, but I realized after I came back from combat that it changes you,” Hugee said. “Everything and anything that I do now, I do as a proud veteran and also to honor my father.”
Hugee felt his father would be proud of his turnaround and accomplishments. Going from being what he described as a functional addict to a graduate of the VA Medical Center’s PTSD program, an accomplished stained glass artist and loving father and husband was no easy feat. But Hugee has been moving onward and upward since 1995.
The PTSD program Hugee was enrolled in allowed him and other Vietnam veterans to get in touch with feelings they repressed for decades. it was also in the program that Hugee realized he was not alone in his struggles.
“It was a bunch of guys that looked and sounded just like me. … We all had receding hairlines. We all had stories. We all had hidden anger that had to be … looked at,” he said.
After Hugee graduated from the program in 1995, he was able to pursue a more fulfilling life – fatherhood, a new marriage and pursuing art.
“When I left new York, I did not know where my journey was going to take me. … I did not know I would meet a woman in church … that was, not only changed my life, but would change how I think,” Hugee said.
“I know that I’m very blessed to be in my daughter’s life and share with her, her kids,” he said.
Initially interested in photography as an undergraduate after the war, it was second nature for Hugee to use art as a method of coping with his PTSD. He began painting suncatchers at the VA and then moved on to making stained glass.
“It is almost therapeutic. … It’s almost a form of meditation, because you absorb yourself (with) it,” he said.
Since Hugee has so many pieces of work, his short-term goal is to make a catalog of the pieces and then display the work at an art show.
“I want to show them off,” he said.
While Hugee has made a successful recovery from his experience in Vietnam, he said he worries about what men and women today are facing when returning from combat, citing concerns of multiple deployments, PTSD and high rates of suicide.
“What we have to look at now … is what’s happening with multi-deployments,” he said. “I was over there for maybe nine months. But for these … men and women now that are being multi-deployed four, five, six times in an environment, we can see the end results.”
Hugee suggested a mandated “cooling-off period” so that men and women could be monitored for signs of PTSD and other issues they might face.
“You see them sitting there in front of you, both hands, both legs, but … it was here,” he said, pointing to his head. “It’s very sophisticated when we talk about the brain.”
“I happen to be a successful byproduct, but I’m going to tell you right now, it took a while. … I think the timing was right for me,” Hugee said of his 20-year road to recovery.
– Staff writer Rachel Molenda can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 215, or firstname.lastname@example.org.