“That hug felt great. I needed that,” the Veteran said as he walked down the hallway of the Lexington, KY VA Medical Center’s Leestown Road campus. He had just run across five members of the Human Hug Project made up of Veterans and volunteers who are crisscrossing the country offering hugs to any fellow Veteran they see.
The Vet-hugging team has visited more than 20 VA medical centers across the country on their mission to spread awareness of PTSD and some positive energy. Their visit to Kentucky is the first of 2016 and will lead them to more stops in Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Richmond, Virginia, in the next few weeks.
Founded by Marine Veterans Ian Michael and Gino Greganti, the Human Hug Project wants to visit every VA medical center to share their message. In Lexington, they met up with Voluntary Services coordinator Candace Bradley and began handing out “free hugs” to any Veteran, staff member or family member who wanted one, or offering handshakes, fist bumps or a smile to those who didn’t.
As we walked the hallways, Michael and Greganti shared their stories of dealing with the PTSD they developed after serving on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. After years of coping with the effects, Michael found an article online about the psychological benefits of hugs.
“I decided if I could get only a small portion of those benefits, my life would be better,” Michael told People magazine earlier this year during the first part of his tour. “I threw my dog in the car and grabbed a free hug sign and started traveling across the country and giving hugs.”
Greganti found himself in a similar situation and had even produced a short film about how a hug from a VA employee helped him. Teaming up with Michael, the two Marines are paying it back.
The trip to Lexington also gave the #HugAVet team the opportunity to introduce something new to their visits – letters from children to America’s Veterans. Before starting their trip, the team gathered letters from children at Knoxville’s East Tennesse Children’s Hospital. “I pray you have a healthy and happy life, and that you get the honor and respect you deserve,” read one letter from a little girl named Olivia. “Thank you so so so much for your service and sacrifice!” she wrote, carefully underlining her words.
“I can’t promise you won’t cry reading this,” Michael proclaimed when placing the envelopes into Veterans’ hands. The gesture clearly touched several of those receiving the missives, with service-hardened men getting misty-eyed as they opened the letters to read them.
“It’s important for children and Veterans of all ages to connect, to close the gap,” Michael said. “These people need someone to tell them they love them.