SARASOTA, Fla. (July 2, 2015) – The Fourth of July means fireworks, barbecuing and family get-togethers to most and then there’s Todd Hughes, veterans services administrator at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Student Services office.
The 32-year-old Army veteran fought in Iraq. His wife, Jessica, is an Army vet. He spends his days counseling student veterans, helping them enroll and access their benefits for tuition. To Hughes, The Fourth should be commemorated virtually year-round.
“I love celebrating the independence of our great nation,” he says.
Recently, Hughes was in Chicago for a three-day cycling trip for wounded veterans – part escape, part therapy. He has even lobbied Senators and members of Congress for changes at Veterans Administration hospitals.
Fellow veterans marvel at Hughes’ dedication to veterans’ causes. His weekends are frequently booked with bowling matches and fishing and hunting trips for wounded vets.
Hughes can’t explain why he’s so involved: “I guess that’s my lot in life, what I’m supposed to do,” he says.
But he can tell you when it all started. February 2005. He was 21, at the head of a convoy driving through Iraq. Members of Hughes’ squad spotted something suspicious on the road. The vehicle stopped and everyone climbed out. Seconds later, an improvised explosive device went off 50 feet away, sending Hughes reeling backward.
Everything was a blur after that. Hughes’ friends told him a firefight followed the explosion. He couldn’t remember the trip back to base. Outwardly he looked the same. No bleeding or broken bones, which explains why he shrugged off medical treatment. That, plus an unwritten rule that said you fight if you can walk.
But as weeks and months rolled by Hughes learned otherwise. The aches, pains and nightmares he suffered, even after his discharge, traced to traumatic brain injury, soft tissue damage on one side and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Having answers helped, but the problems persisted. It took vets from the Wounded Warrior Project to get him off the couch.
Grateful, Hughes now volunteers with the group, along with other organizations such as the Sarasota County Veterans’ Commission and Manatee County Veterans’ Council.
He regularly joins his fellow vets on trips, even serving as a peer mentor to some. A father of two, Hughes also enrolled at USF Sarasota-Manatee, serving a term as Student Government president, earning a history degree and eventually landing a job here.
Working with veterans outside USFSM – he has since attended hundreds of veterans-related events – gives him a sense of purpose, a bigger cause to fight for, Hughes said.
“It’s put me in touch with other guys who had similar stuff going on, even worse stuff,” he said. “It’s like there’s an instant bond between us.”
As for the Fourth itself, Hughes said he plans to keep it low-key: time off with his wife and two children. They might watch fireworks, but haven’t decided. Being patriotic isn’t about barbecues and fireworks, he said.
“We should be patriotic on a daily basis, not just on a few holidays,” Hughes said. “Regardless of what is going on in the government and all the differences we see in the news today, we still need to hold together as one nation and support our servicemen and women who are fighting to keep terrorism as far away from home as possible. And we need to hold onto the freedoms our forefathers gave us.”
To learn more about the Student Services office at USF Sarasota-Manatee, visit usfsm.edu/student-services.