Peace through Puppets founder takes trip with Patch Adams

CLOWNING AROUND THE WORLD: Bruce Reges, founder of Peace through Puppets, has used his clowning and puppetry skills to save countless lives, including his own. The nonprofit organization was founded after Reges was sent to Iraq in 2006 and found puppets could bridge the gap between soldiers and children.  After returning from Iraq, Reges participated in a program run by Patch Adams to help veterans with PTSD by working as clowns in Guatemala. (Courtesy photo/Bruce Reges)

CLOWNING AROUND THE WORLD: Bruce Reges, founder of Peace through Puppets, has used his clowning and puppetry skills to save countless lives, including his own. The nonprofit organization was founded after Reges was sent to Iraq in 2006 and found puppets could bridge the gap between soldiers and children. After returning from Iraq, Reges participated in a program run by Patch Adams to help veterans with PTSD by working as clowns in Guatemala. (Courtesy photo/Bruce Reges)

BIG RAPIDS — Bruce Reges is a clown. He performed puppet shows in his adolescence and worked with Bozo the Clown in Grand Rapids in high school. As he grew older, he decided to hang up his red nose and colorful wig, working as an educator and a member of the Army Reserve.

In 2006, after more than 25 years in the Army Reserve, Reges was told if he didn’t volunteer for service, he would be volunteered.

“In that kind of situation in the army, they draw a line in the sand and it’s better to step forward, even if they don’t take you,” he said. “We were sent to the most dangerous place to be. It was a very difficult assignment; we lost a lot of people in the brigade that was there. My unit was lucky. We went with everybody and we came back with everybody.”

Reges recalls entering a school following a precision strike across the street that left the building with no doors or windows. The students screamed when he and his fellow soldiers entered the classrooms.

“I’m not used to that,” he said. “I’m not the kind of guy who expects people to react like that, kids especially.”

Reges asked his mother to send him several puppets he could keep with him to help calm the situation when children were upset by the soldiers. She obliged and, using his previously acquired clowning and puppetry skills, the Peace through Puppets movement was born.

“The reason the puppets worked out in Iraq is the kids started to tell us where the bombs were so we wouldn’t get killed,” Reges said. “That’s what I heard from soldiers. We need more of those, because we’re not dying anymore.”

Reges returned from Iraq in 2008. Instead of the hero’s welcome one might expect, Reges’ home was foreclosed and he lost his job working for Ferris State University. On top of the complications presented by trying to reacclimatize to life in the U.S., Reges was dealing with the mental and physical repercussions of serving overseas.

“When I came home, I honestly in my head thought that I was fine and everyone else had changed. What I didn’t realize, that took me a lot of therapy and a lot of counseling to understand is that I had changed,” he said.

Reges started on the road to recovery at the Grand Rapids Veterans Affairs hospital, where he was misdiagnosed with adjustment issues instead of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Eventually, he was sent to a psychiatrist in the Big Rapids area, who recognized what was going on and sent him to Mary Free Bed in Grand Rapids for testing and the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Chicago for six weeks of stress treatment.

“I used to tell jokes about what happened to me, because it deflects from what actually happened,” Reges said. “My therapist had a two-by-four mounted on the wall she’d threaten to hit me over the head with, saying ‘This is not funny, this is real and you are going to tell me what happened. You are going to tell me exactly what you saw and what happened to you and then we can start working.’”

After participating in the stress program at Captain Lovell, Reges was presented with another opportunity to use clowning to his benefit. A pilot program to send veterans with PTSD to Guatemala with Patch Adams was looking for volunteers and Reges’ doctor advised him to go.

“I was a clown on television when I was a senior in high school. It’s the greatest job you can have when you’re a senior in high school.  As soon as school was finished, I would drive down to downtown Grand Rapids to WZZM TV. I would put on my clown makeup and go out there and perform,” Reges said. “The only problem with being a clown is that people never took me seriously. Then, when you become an art teacher, it’s even worse.”

Even with his previous clowning experience, Reges was unsure if he wanted to participate in the Guatemala program.

“All my life I’ve been trying to be normal, trying to show people I’m a serious person that has serious ideas and I’m worth knowing,” he said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to go to Guatemala, because it meant I have to get reacquainted with a person I’ve been trying to bury for 45 years.”

Reges remembers waiting in the airport in Chicago before the trip began. He wore a red nose and a silly hat, but felt undressed when Adams arrived on the scene in full clown regalia.

In a way, the Guatemala trip was a kind of shock therapy for the people who went with Adams, Reges said.

“He takes people to criminally insane psychological hospitals where nobody comes to visit,” he said. “These are some of the most – they lock them up for a reason. At the same time, we’re there in our clown outfits and we’re welcomed like we are long lost brothers.”

Reges spent 10 days in Guatemala visiting hospitals and orphanages, working with fellow veterans to embrace a part of them that may have been dormant for years.

“In an environment like Iraq, you shut off all your emotions. You don’t want to have anything to do with anyone because people die, kids die. You just shut it all off,” he said. “What they were asking us to do is open up again, to be people again. That’s very hard to do, because it’s so much safer to be locked away.”

After returning from Guatemala, Reges  was set to fufill a promise he made to his daughter before he left. The bargain was simple; he could go on the trip if he would come to her school wearing his full clown attire.

He stood in the office, dressed in his clown outfit complete with a pair of pants Adams himself presented Reges with during the trip to Guatemala.

“Everyone is working and I’m standing there waiting for a reaction. They said, ‘Bruce, we’ve always known. I don’t know why you’d even think you’d get a reaction, we know you,’” he said.

“A lot of things happened during my trip that were very positive, but one of the most positive things is I got to reacquaint myself with the 18-year-old I have been trying to bury all of these years. In a way, that was unfortunate; I should have embraced who he was at the time.”

When a clown emerges from a closet, he is usually followed by 50 or 60 more clowns. Reges is continuing to advocate for both Peace through Puppets and clown-based PTSD therapy for veterans.

“What I can do with it too is look at other veterans and say, not so much, ‘Be a clown, it will make you better,’ but, ‘Here’s another tool in the toolbag to help us get better,’” he said. “It doesn’t seem there’s a way to cure PTSD, but there are ways to help it, and this is one of them. This plus the other therapies are things to help you get better so you can be a functioning part of society again.”

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Posted by Adam Gac

Adam is the Pioneer City/County Reporter, covering government in Mecosta County. He can be reached by e-mail at agac@pioneergroup.com or by phone at (231) 592-8347.

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