Robert Battles Ptsd, Cancer, And Finds God In The Fight
Robert was against the Vietnam War, but after graduating from high school, he was drafted. And despite his feelings about it, there was never a moment that he considered making a run for it.
Robert’s dad was career military, and the family—including his five siblings—moved all over the United States. “My dad was in Korea and Vietnam. He was a lead soldier, airborne, a Green Beret. That was his style—gung ho. He was at the top of his game.”
So when Robert was drafted, he joined the Navy as a medic instead. “I just couldn’t see myself shooting anybody,” he said. “I was against the war and I wanted to get away from that, but I wanted to honor my father. I wasn’t going to run to Canada.
“I tried to avoid war and ended up getting two tours in Vietnam. When I got back, the transition was hard. Coming home from Vietnam, guys were getting spit on, being called names. My attitude was just that I was trying to do what my country asked me to do. It was a lot to endure. I for sure had some PTSD, although it was non-diagnosed.”
Robert wanted to continue using his medical experience, so upon his return to the states, he became a firefighter for Kern County. “It worked out really well for a while,” he said. “But after about six years, the experiences I had in Vietnam started to creep up on me.”
One tough call Robert responded to as a firefighter took a toll. “There were some deaths,” Robert said. “There were three small kids. I was first on the line. From then on, I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept thinking, ‘What more could I have done?’ It kind of messed me up, and my job started to not be instinctive. I started to think about everything too much, and it hindered my performance.”
Robert took a leave of absence. He went to a VA facility and learned about PTSD. “They wanted me to take some medication and I wasn’t for it. So I just roamed around. I went to Key West, Florida and became a sports fisherman for a while. I moved back to Bakersfield and because I had started to drink a little bit, I thought I’d become a bartender so I could get free drinks.”
Lucky for him, Robert said, he met his wife during that time. “She had three children and we had three more together. That settled me down,” he said. “My focus was more on my family.” They bought a home in Victorville, and Robert worked for a glass factory for several years. “Everything was going good for a while,” he said. “But my kids started to grow up and my mind started to affect me again.”
Robert started to drink more and more. “Down the line, I was drinking so much it was affecting my family. I went through seven rehabs, recovery homes, the VA. I tried to combat it, and I would recover, but I’d always go back.
“One day, I was at home with my family, and I was messed up. We got into an argument. I just left. I walked out of the house and left them there. I was looking for answers. I didn’t want my family to see me like that anymore. I roamed the streets of Victorville for eight years. I was homeless. I drank myself to the point where I was really bad—like, face-down-in-the-gutter bad. Like, crawling-across-the-street-to-the-nearest-liquor-store kind of bad.”
Robert started sleeping in the back of the Burning Bush church. He had met the pastor there. “I was in my pity,” Robert said. “I was in my stupor. I had my 40 (-ounce beer) in my hand. I heard my name and I looked up to Jesus. He said, ‘You oughtta look at yourself, Robert.’ I looked at myself, and smelled myself, and thought, ‘How did I get here?’ It was literally from riches to rags. At that point, I said, ‘I don’t know much about you, but I’ve heard about you. If you can do anything with this guy, here I am. I’ve run out of excuses, I’ve run out of plans, my pockets are empty, I have nowhere to go.’ And that’s when I was saved. Right then, instead of wanting to die, I wanted to live.”
Robert said that from there, God took over. “He put people in front of me who preached to me, who gave me love, and guided me. That’s when the rescue mission came into play.”
Robert went to the mission’s shower program and asked for help. He entered the Life Recovery Program in 2013. “(Program Manager) John Schmidt had the ability to express Scripture in a way that I understood. He inspired me to continue on in my beliefs. He explained it so well. Also, Kenne (chaplain’s assistant) was an influence on me because of how he lived, how he communicated, how he expressed the love of Jesus. It got me to the point where there was no alternative for me. I knew that without Christ, I was nothing. I stay in Christ so that I’m somebody.”
Robert graduated and did some work for the mission, setting up for events and cooking meals, until his retirement. He is also involved with organizations like The Lord’s Table and is president of the High Desert Homeless Services’ Board of Directors. “I’ve been contributing to the community ever since,” he said. “I give back. God’s put me in a position where I can glorify him. That’s what I do now.”
A year ago, Robert was helping someone move some furniture and he became weak. At the hospital, after a lot of testing, Robert found out he had stage four cancer. He had emergency surgery to remove a mass in his brain, but the cancer in his lungs and hip couldn’t be removed. “I didn’t want to do chemotherapy. But, this is how God is: my oncologist came to me, and he was all excited. He told me I have a mutant cell in my cancer, which is a rarity. Because of that, there was a new medication they could use to attack it. From that to right now, I’m walking. I’m riding my bike, and going here and there. My hip and bone cancer is healing. There has been a 50 percent reduction of cancer in my lung. That’s been the big surprise—the medication was really just to keep it at bay.
“I was in bad shape. I was down to nothing. They said I had 18 months to live. Everything was against me. My doctor said, ‘I don’t know how this happened.’ I said, ‘I do. It’s God.’”
Robert reflects on some of the hardships in his life, but feels blessed. “I lost my family,” he said. “My past wife, we are divorced, but we are friends. I lost my children, but I’ve gathered them all together again. There are a lot of good things that happened in my life after I tried to destroy it all. That’s because I trust in the Lord. I have faith.
“God has been good to me. I believe that’s my mission, to express the goodness that he has for you. If you believe in him, all things are possible through Jesus.”