Local entrepreneur, Gus Guadagnino, is a hero in several ways. He’s very humble and I had to twist his arm to get him to let me write about him, but then he said, “If my story can help someone else, let’s go ahead and do it.” That’s the kind of person he is.
Gus grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan in “Little Italy” raised in a “working poor” close-knit Catholic family. His parents taught all their children the values of honesty, service, and caring for others.
After moving to Hernando County in the 1980s and starting two businesses, he became involved in community service organizations. The list is too long to mention them all, but here are a few: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Hernando County Education Foundation, and Lighthouse for the Blind. In 2017, he founded Veterans HEAT Factory (VHF). The mission of VHF is to help service personnel and first responders who suffer from PTSD.
Gus overcame obstacles to get a college education, to start and run successful businesses, and even to raise a family. But the hardest obstacle he’s had to overcome was his battle with cancer.
He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in March of 2021. The news hit him hard and he went through a period of depression. What got him out of this state was thinking about if he were to die, what would happen to his family, his business, and his non-profit organization that he was devoted to and which had helped so many people. Gus went through surgeries, months of chemotherapy and drastic weight loss. He believes that what got him through was a sense of purpose.
In fact, Gus says, “cancer saved my life.” He started on a healthier lifestyle, regarding diet and cut down on the pace of his life. This has given him more time to focus on the really important things, namely his family and Veterans’ HEAT Factory.
The men and women who come to VHF participate in peer group counseling, physical exercise, art therapy and other activities. The organization helps them find jobs, counsels them on financial skills, anger management and a myriad of other coping skills. Veterans’ HEAT Factory treats PTSD as an injury, not a mental illness.
As Sean, one of the veterans that has been helped by VHF, says “We’re not broken. We don’t need fixing.”
Sean is typical of the people who come to the Veterans HEAT Factory. He’s a 41-year-old Army veteran who served from 2001 – 2013. He had multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Sean was a sergeant in the infantry and was in combat for several years before being transferred to communications where he was what he calls, “a computer nerd.”
“I had a pretty good military career,” Sean states.
However, in 2004 he was diagnosed with depression which manifested itself in sleeplessness and hyper-vigilance. At that time, the military did not recognize it as PTSD. He had just come back from Iraq where he was injured and received a Purple Heart.
Sean went through several mental health services while in the Army.The counselor didn’t consider him to be depressed because he wasn’t suicidal, so they put him through an anger management course, but he didn’t identify with that. When the doctors saw his severe sleeplessness, they put him on Ambien, but that didn’t work, so he gave up on getting help.
“I figured I’d just suffer through it. I told myself, ‘I’ll be okay.’ ”
But he wasn’t okay. He had nightmares and went days without sleep or with just two or three hours sleep.
After getting out of the Army, he started “falling apart,” as he says. Yet he had a good job working as an IT network engineer.
The symptoms that he had in the Army didn’t stop. In fact they got worse, but he continued working twelve to fourteen hours a day. His sleeplessness got so bad he once went four days without sleep. He was hallucinating, so his wife, Ash, took him to their family physician. The doctor put him on medication to help him sleep, which fixed the temporary problem but not the underlying causes. At home, he was constantly angry.
Sean sought mental health help at the Veterans’ Administration (VA). In his words, it was a “horrible experience,” for several reasons.
First off, the doctors put him on several different types of medications. One was a narcotic pain killer for the pain he had as a result of his injury. They gave him the maximum dose of Clonazepam, a drug used to treat anxiety, and Xanax. He stuck with this for four months.
Sean was living in Jacksonville at the time and he started on a downward spiral into drug dependency, which resulted in some incidents with the police. One in particular was when he was stopped by a police officer early one morning in a park because he was acting suspiciously. Sean had a loaded firearm on him, which he carried at all times, but he didn’t have a concealed carry permit. The officer, who happened to be an ex-Marine, told Sean that he could take him to jail for that, but instead he spoke to Sean for several hours and told him that he needed to get help.
After that incident, he continued to self-medicate, taking more painkillers than he should have. It was at this time that his wife, who was going to nursing school, said to him, “You’ve got to make a change or it’s going to kill you.”
Sean stopped going to the VA and took all his drugs and dumped them in the toilet. He went through two weeks of torturous withdrawal. During that time he attempted suicide because he was in so much pain. He felt that his family would be better off without him because his wife struggled with his PTSD as much as he did. In the end it was his family that got him through this crisis.
His wife, Ashley, hooked him up with a counselor in Miami who was doing outreach with veterans. The counselor got him in with a group of his peers, so Sean and Ashley would drive from Jacksonville to Miami periodically for him to meet with the counselor and the group there.
Eventually, his wife got a job at Oak Hill Hospital and the couple moved here two years ago. Sean had made immense progress. He had gotten through his drug addiction, was no longer suicidal and was making huge strides, but he was a complete shut-in.
“I didn’t want to leave home. I didn’t want to deal with anybody.”
It was his wife who got him to overcome this obstacle through “tough love.”
“She said to me, ‘Is this how you really want it to be?’ ” He realized it wasn’t.
“I decided I had to take a chance and get out and try to live my life and do something positive. That’s my goal now−to be something positive in the community.”
Then, Sean discovered the Veterans HEAT Factory. At first, he had difficulty just walking in the door and he admits that he’s still not totally comfortable being out. What drives him is that he wants to help other veterans. He credits Gus with helping him to get out of his comfort zone.
“He’s ‘forced’ me to be on the radio, to meet with the newspaper. I’m enrolled in college to become a counselor. It’s full steam ahead for me, but it’s not easy.”
Sean’s story shows that he IS a hero, not just with his war experiences. Choosing life over death, choosing to move on instead of giving up, can be one of the bravest things a person can do.
Gus is also a hero whose organization has literally saved a number of lives. He’s a hero to have gone through the pain of surgery and chemotherapy and come out the other side with a positive attitude.
If you’re a veteran or first responder suffering from PTSD or know someone who is going through this, go to www.VeteransHEATFactory.com or call 352-251-7015. All of their services are free of charge. If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide call 1-800-273-8255 IMMEDIATELY.