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Love After War: Couple Leans on Each Other – and Wounded Warrior Project – To Improve Relationship

Scott and Shea Hughes (with his service dog Barnaby) serve as peer mentors for Project Odyssey adventure retreats after learning skills that helped improve their marriage.
Scott and Shea Hughes (with his service dog Barnaby) have been married for over 25 years. Today, they serve as peer mentors for Project Odyssey retreats after learning skills that helped Scott manage his PTSD and improve their relationship.

Shea Hughes remembers when her husband Scott returned from an outing with other veterans from Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP).

“He comes back, and there is this new excitement. And he said it would be great if we could do it as a couple,” she said.

Although delighted by her husband’s experience, Shea was skeptical.

“I knew we were broken, but I was terrified to step outside of my comfort zone because it was unknown to me,” said Shea, who was struggling to help her husband cope with his health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from his time in combat.

It would take almost a year before Scott, a former Army sergeant, convinced Shea to join him on a multiday retreat known as a couples Project Odyssey.® The adventure-based program hosted by WWP™ aims to help veterans and their significant others improve their relationships.

“I didn’t know how badly broken and how much help we needed until we got to Project Odyssey. Then, I realized we were simply surviving. But thanks to Wounded Warrior Project, now we thrive. Life is so good now,” said Shea.

PTSD: The Third Wheel in Your Relationship

Looking back, Shea admits she didn’t know what to expect when she sent her then 31-year-old husband off to war in 2004. “When he came home, he was definitely different. The man I sent to Iraq was not the same man who came home,” said Shea.

Scott was medically retired from the Army after he sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and spinal fractures. He was also diagnosed with PTSD, like many of his fellow servicemen and women.

TBIs and PTSD are common among post-9/11 military veterans and can occur simultaneously, making it difficult to sort through the symptoms. According to WWP’s most recent Warrior Survey,* 64% of warriors reported head injuries, with 35% of surveyed veterans saying they had a TBI. More than two-thirds of warriors (76%) also affirmed a PTSD diagnosis, making it the top reported mental health condition experienced.

Symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks of traumatic events, anxiety, increased agitation, isolation, and trouble sleeping. As a result, trust, intimacy, and interpersonal communication can become strained. The Department of Veterans Affairs reports that people with PTSD often have difficulty managing social and emotional relationships. Loved ones of those experiencing PTSD can also begin to mimic behaviors and feel as if they are experiencing trauma as well.

Scott and Shea Hughes wedding

Scott and Shea's wedding day.

In retrospect, Scott said he would shut himself off from the family when trying to manage his PTSD. He became more reserved, but at the same time, he became angry at the slightest things and had outbursts that confused his two children.

Scott and Shea’s eldest child, Bri Hughes, was in second grade when her dad returned from Iraq.

“Before he left, he was happy, supportive, and always ran soccer drills with me. We were like two peas in a pod,” said Bri. “When he came back, it was completely different. It was like a light had switched. He did not want to run soccer drills anymore and didn’t ask about our day. The simplest things, everyday things, would set him off.”

The couple’s younger daughter Erin has similar memories growing up. “He was just so angry all the time. At my mom. At us. He would constantly yell. He would remain in the bedroom, shut the door, and not talk to us,” she said.

Shea tried to shield her daughters, but her frustrations grew. 

You never knew who he’d be from one day to the next. I was constantly on guard... It’s like you, your loved one, and their PTSD are in your relationship.

"You never knew who he'd be from one day to the next. I was constantly on guard," she said. "When our warriors come home, there is no handbook; no one is there to help you understand what they have gone through. We have no way to relate to what they have experienced. It's like you, your loved one, and their PTSD are in your relationship."

Pushing Discomfort Aside  

Scott first learned about WWP in 2005 after he was injured. “When I arrived at the hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, they placed a Wounded Warrior Project backpack on my chest,” he recalled.

He carried the pack everywhere, but in his mind, WWP services were for more seriously injured veterans. Though he began fundraising for the organization and joined a few warrior connection events, it wasn’t until Scott attended a Def Leppard concert with other warriors that he finally realized there was hope for him.

WWP arranged for a group of warriors to meet drummer Rick Allen, who spoke about his journey with PTSD after losing a limb. “He spoke about how he tried to ignore it, but then he met it full-on to live through it,” said Scott.

Agreeing to explore treatment options was uncomfortable, but Scott’s love for his family propelled him forward.

“The ones closest to us are the easiest hurt because they see and feel the pain, too,” said Scott. “Taking the chance to ask for help allows everyone to find a path to healing.”

Through his experiences, Scott said he’s learned to treat PTSD like you would cancer or another life-altering illness. “Injuries of the mind are just as deadly as the ones of the body, sometimes more so because they cannot be seen on an X-ray or with the eyes. But you need to be an advocate for yourself.” 

A Healing Odyssey

One of the objectives of a couples Project Odyssey is to help partners learn to communicate more effectively and to manage conflict better.

The Hughes’ entire relationship shifted during one exercise.

Learn more about how Project Odyssey helped the Hughes' relationship

Shea recalled that the couples were talking about things that frustrated them.

“It was this tiny little thing that bothered me. I don’t know why it did, but as we talked, we figured out why it bothered me so much. And Scott heard me. He acknowledged it.”

At that moment, Shea knew Scott loved her so much, and her marriage was salvageable.

“Marriage and relationships are not easy,” Shea said. “When you throw the military on top of it, it’s more of a stumbling block, especially since, as Scott says, the military is about directives, not communications. WWP taught us to communicate and helped us to heal our marriage by giving us tools to reconnect and learn more about ourselves.”

Among the Odyssey exercises were those aimed at helping attendees manage conflict.

“I want closure, and Scott needs space,” said Shea. “I would chase after him, and he would retreat. So, we had to figure out how to compromise. We still have the conflict, but we can get to the resolution quicker. That makes a much happier family.”

The activities at the couples Odyssey also resonated with Scott. “You learn that you can go through trauma and injuries, but you can still grow together. You just have to find the right tools to guide you on your journey.”

During the retreat, Shea said she also learned more about what her husband – and other veterans – experienced while in combat and how it affected Scott.

“I understood more about PTSD and what it does, why it happens,” she said, including that Scott’s behavior was not because of something she or the girls did. “I took that information home and explained it to the girls, which really helped us.”

Both Bri and Erin said that over time, they remember their parents began to talk about what their dad was dealing with.

“We slowly learned what PTSD was and how it had already taken such a toll on our dad but on our family, too,” said Erin. 

Building A Legacy of Healing

Scott and Shea felt called to share their experiences as peer mentors because they appreciated how much they gained from Project Odyssey. Together, they have been on 15 adventures, sharing and advising more than 125 couples.

“We’ve been with couples who have been married a year, others 20 years. You see them learn the tools, see them break down, cry, and realize their marriage isn’t over,” said Shea.

While the Hugheses have built many friendships with warriors and the loved ones who accompanied them on Odysseys, they are most proud of being role models for their children.

“I know, generationally speaking, I did not pass on my traumas,” said Scott.

“The lessons we have learned are valuable not only for couples but also for all families and every generation. What a legacy for our children to see good in marriage, to learn about how to communicate, to witness their parents working things out in a healthy and constructive way, and to not run away from problems,” Shea added.

Project Odyssey retreat

During Project Odyssey, Shea Hughes learned more about PTSD and what her husband Scott went through while serving in combat.

Bri and Erin, now 26 and 25, respectively, say they are grateful to WWP – even though they didn’t realize the education they were getting while growing up.

“Looking back, it’s funny because, at the time, some of the stuff they tried to implement in our family was silly or cliché, but it really was about building a stronger foundation while being an example to others,” said Erin.

Today, Erin applies these skills to her own marriage. “I take their example of supporting one another and how to simply talk to each other… Of being one team,” she said.

Bri relies on the lessons she learned from her parents daily, including in her work as a high school special education teacher.

“Lessons such as how to listen, communicate, support, and be there for each other even when things are really difficult. In my job, I get an opportunity to apply these same principles with students with many different things going on.”

The Next Chapter

“The Army kept him alive; the VA made sure he was physically healed, but WWP helped Scott grow and thrive – and they taught us to communicate,” said Shea, who recently retired and is looking forward to new adventures alongside her husband.

The couple is preparing to travel, making lists of new places to visit in their mini-camper and new foods they want to try. They know there will still be some bumps in the road ahead, but they are confident in their love for one another and the skills they gleaned from WWP.

“Everyone changes based on their lived experiences. You must decide if you will embrace each other and then learn how to be most effective," said Shea."We are still a work in progress, continuously evolving, but we have great days ahead.”

Learn more about Project Odyssey and other WWP programs and services that help warriors and loved ones rebuild relationships and improve their mental health. 

Contact: Cynthia Weiss – Public Relations,, 904.738.2589

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

*Warrior Survey, Wave 2 (conducted June 15-Aug. 24, 2022) 

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