When Andy Roberts returned from his Army tour in Iraq in 2004, he suffered from PTSD, survivor’s guilt and hypervigilance. “Never for 365 days was there one day where I felt safe,” he said. “I was a 28-year-old responsible for a hundred lives. My hypervigilance was turned on over there, and it was very difficult to turn off when I came home.”
Roberts, now 39, said he was living in California with his girlfriend after his discharge and “I heard a noise. I thought she fired a gun at me. I spun around and expected to see a gun. She had just stepped on bubble wrap. I screamed at her.” There were other symptoms. “I felt guilt,” he said, “because people were still over there fighting and I was safe and sound.”
The West Point graduate from Suffern, N.Y. had been a captain in charge of an artillery battery supporting the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq. His unit did not suffer any deaths during his tour. “There wasn’t any one horrific incident,” he said of a possible trigger for his PTSD, “and I never was formally diagnosed.” But Roberts said he healed through a series of experiences that led to his current job as director of the Rosen Family Wellness Center at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. The Center since 2006 has provided low-cost counseling and other services for veterans, policemen and firemen and their families.
Roberts said after six months working in construction management in California, he took a year off and traveled around the U.S., Europe and Thailand. “That didn’t resolve anything,” he said. But he moved to New York City, got back into construction and started volunteering with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “They hired me to work in their membership department and to do speaking engagements,” he said. “Somebody gave me a book on PTSD that mentioned a ‘high startle response.’ That helped.”
In 2009, Roberts was named deputy director of the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs. Through his work, he became acquainted with the Rosen Family Wellness Center and was hired to direct it in May 2011. Under his leadership, North Shore opened a second center in Bay Shore in late 2012. “My construction background came in handy,” he said. Roberts said North Shore and its satellites have 54,000 employees and estimates 10 percent are veterans.
Since it opened, Roberts said, the Manhasset center has conducted 11,733 patient sessions; it currently is handling about 70 clients. Service members, policemen and firemen do not want to be stigmatized by having a diagnosis of mental illness in their records, so the center’s confidentiality is important. The staff at the center is experienced in dealing with issues specific to these groups. “There’s no question we have been changing lives, if not saving lives,” Roberts said. “We’re enabling people to live a healthier life and reach their full potential.”
Roberts said he also volunteers with Project Healing Waters in New York City. The nonprofit teaches fly fishing to veterans as a relaxing, therapeutic activity. “I went and I served and I came home and I didn’t have a mission or a purpose,” he said , “so I kind of needed to do this [volunteer] stuff to make sure our veterans are not forgotten. It’s how I healed – through the process of speaking [to them]. I started to feel like I was home, started to feel like myself again.”
Roberts began a new job as North Shore’s director of strategic initiatives on Feb. 9 and will be grooming his successor at the Manhasset center. Part of his new job will be developing a recruitment strategy for North Shore to hire veterans throughout their system. He said the hospital system’s commitment to veterans stems from “recognition that there was a gap in care. The community assumes that all the needs of veterans are taken care of. They’re not.”
He said his speaking engagements with IAVA, the state agency and North Shore “gave me permission” to talk about his own issues and accelerated his healing. “It was ‘talk to this reporter, these social workers, this group of vets,’” he said. “I was told it was ‘exposure therapy,’ and it worked. Without that therapy, I may never have healed.”
The Manhasset site is on the first floor at 400 Community Dr., 516-562-3260; the Bay Shore Unified Health Center is at 132 E. Main St., 631-647-2530
Jim Smith, 66, of Williston Park, is a Vietnam War veteran and has been a contributor to the Mineola American since 1988. He retired Dec. 31, 2014 after being a Newsday reporter and editor since 1966.