Triumph or recovery from tragedy can both make a hero, but Opotiki identity Ruka Hudson qualifies on both counts.
Mr Hudson lost his legs, one above the knee, during his service in the Vietnam War. He has gone on to become a successful artist, proud father and grandfather, korowai teacher, fluent te reo Maori speaker and keen fisherman.
After 10 weeks with Victor 5 Company, 2RAR/NZ (Anzac) Battalion in the Vietnam jungle in 1970, the then 27-year-old stepped between two rocks while on patrol and stood on a land mine.
"I felt myself flying through the air and landing with my head inches from the trunk of a large tree. In a few seconds my past flew by me - I could see the waves crashing on the rocks at home as clearly as the brightest day. Then I smelt the stench of burning flesh and my legs seemed to curl up my back."
His only thought was coming home to see his parents. Flown to an army hospital for surgery and then to Auckland, he began the long process of recovery.
"Still at the airport we stopped, the rear doors of the ambulance were opened up, and the silhouette of mum and dad appeared, then the flood gates opened. I cried, they cried, and we just cried until we had no more tears."
Hudson had to learn a number of new lessons, including walking on artificial limbs and driving again.
Married shortly after his return, he began work as an engraver. Eventually he took on his own business, engraving jewellery and artefacts, all the while living with the trauma of his wartime experiences.
"My first attempts at walking were ungainly, unsteady and downright uncomfortable. I became obnoxious, impatient and intolerant, and bloody determined to master those limbs."
He was haunted by the war he left behind. He experienced flashbacks and frequent dreams, including one where he relived the blast and was surrounded by Viet Cong soldiers.
"My arms involuntarily started to feel and grope around my chest; I was in a state of panic and I awoke sweating like a stuck pig. This dream and others were to visit me continuously for many years until they finally dissipated.
"On reflection, if this happened to me after only spending 10 weeks in Vietnam, I wonder how other soldiers have coped after long stints in a war zone."
After the birth of four children and living in Tauranga, Ruka Hudson took to family life and refused let challenges stand in his way.
About 1980 — at the age of 44 — he became a friend of artist Faye Steel and began to learn to paint. After six months under her tutelage, he staged his first exhibition.
"I was a natural. I had a few more successful exhibitions and supplied galleries with paintings – I loved it."
Not long after, the Hudson family moved back to his home town of Ōpōtiki, where he enjoyed diving and fishing from his dinghy. After the birth of his fifth child, painting, rather than engraving, became his major source of income.
Unfortunately, the loss of his parents within two years of each other and the departure of his wife soon after devastated him.
"My injuries from Vietnam were nothing compared with this. However, my concern and love for my children and their needs held me together."
Ruka Hudson moved to Hamilton where, after his youngest had headed off to school, he took on yet another new challenge — learning to speak Te Reo Maori.
"This was a big break for me, an extreme high as I started to get little insights into what was important to me and why we thought the way we did. I eventually ended up back in Ōpōtiki and proceeded to set up Te Reo language classes."
After his first son's wedding he became interested in weaving and learnt korowai through a community-education class. He has made many korowai and now teaches this as well.
"I am quietly proud that our whānau do now have these beautiful family treasures that are so special to us."
Ruka Hudson continues to fish from his boat, and has his own car park at the Opotiki boat-ramp where he launches.
"Looking back, I would say that the biggest attribute to one's outlook on life — with its ups and downs — is attitude
"Life is not easy, but it's only as hard as you make it."
Article courtesy of Andrew Neal, Opotiki News