Rob Kugler has been many things: a Marine, Hollywood actor, garbage man, heavy equipment operator, preschool teacher.
Although the 33-year-old Broken Bow native admits he is the sum of all these parts, they do not define him.
They do not make him whole.
That comes from his photography -- his view of the world through the lens of his Canon Rebel and iPhone digital cameras, and the contemplative passions those images inspire.
A newcomer to the art scene -- Kugler was “discovered” by the Hildegard Center for the Arts this past summer when he dropped by with his portfolio. Hildegard Director Kim Einspahr was so taken with his work that she immediately added him to the list of featured artists in the “It’s Original: Healing Arts” exhibit at the Veterans Administration Hospital.
“The goal of the program is to bridge original arts -- visual, performing and education -- with nontraditional audiences to inspire the human spirit and create an environment of healing and enrichment for those who need it the most -- whether it be patients, staff or the artists themselves,” Einspahr said.
Kugler’s story exemplifies that journey of chasing dreams with the starry-eyed gusto, only to realize that dreams are not all that they seem.
In Kugler’s case, his quick rise in the world of show business left him feeling like an imposter in his own body.
It wasn’t until he picked up that camera, and found perspective through the viewfinder, that he began to feel complete.
A sense of purpose.
A yet-to-be defined calling.
“I am definitely not a photographer, but rather a life explorer, observer, and perspective sharer,” he wrote on his blog RKLifeIllustrated.com.
Kugler describes himself as a storyteller. Photography is his muse.
“You can often find me lost in thought and contribute it to rampant Attention Deficit Disorder,” he wrote for the blog. “However, I like to call it Attention to Detail Disorder. I see many details, and I find them entrancing. I've learned to use my camera to capture what I'm seeing and above anything else, it's soothing for me to print them and let them come to life on my wall and tell me a story.”
A man of so many thoughts and ideals, Kugler finds it easier to express himself through writing on his website, rather than in face-to-face conversations where his mind has a tendency to “self-edit” and meander.
“It's harder for me to let out some of the more intimate thoughts through conversation,” he wrote in an email following a nearly two-hour interview.
“I've had a lot of loss in my life, plenty of hard times, and yet ... no matter how much loss, how dark the sky has become, I choose to seek the light, capture it, and share it with others. I truly feel like it's my obligation ... to continue to spread my love of life with others and inspire others to love theirs as well.”
The self-taught photographer sees his images as starting points in his passionate pursuit to discover his purpose.
“I was raised by a hardworking single mother of four,” Kugler said.
“We were a poor family. We struggled. There were not a lot of extras.”
Like his mother, he never shies from hard work.
But Kugler always has been a dreamer.
Television opened his world. He wanted to be an actor, a comedian and an artist.
A high school teacher told him “to get realistic.” Kugler didn’t have the grades or money for college.
“He (teacher) told me to go into the military,” Kugler said.
His older brother and mentor, Mike Doheny, was already in the Marines. Kugler decided to enlist. His brother steered him from active duty to the reserves.
It was 1999, Kugler recalled. War seemed unlikely. And if war did ever break out, nuclear weapons would fight the battles -- not foot soldiers, Doheny told his brother.
He urged Kugler to go to school. After basic training, Kugler enrolled at Southeast Community College, and took a part-time job teaching preschoolers for Cedar Youth Services.
“Then Sept. 11 happened,” Kugler said.
Doheny was shipped to Iraq.
Kugler was scheduled for deployment, but three times his deployment was delayed.
“It threw me off track,” he said. It’s hard to find a job or enroll in classes when you don’t know how long you will be available, he explained.
Kugler spent his time working odd jobs -- for a tree service, the prison system -- jobs that paid the bills, but nothing more.
“Almost everybody I dealt with told me I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Kugler said. “I was telling myself the same thing.”
It led to depression.
A four-legged brown bundle of joy he named Bella showed him how to appreciate life.
Shortly after adopting the labrador pup, Kugler’s orders came through.
He landed in Iraq in 2007.
And despite his brother’s assurances that Kugler would see combat action -- the young Marine mechanic found himself fixing vehicles at the base camp.
He was frustrated.
He wanted to feel useful -- to make a difference, like his big brother, who was on his third tour of duty.
That all changed on Dec. 9, 2007, when an IED killed Doheny. The front lines no longer looked appealing.
Kugler accompanied his brother’s body back to Broken Bow, and along with it he carried Doheny’s “in the event of my death letter.”
In it was a message for each family member.
Being the youngest, Kugler’s snippet came last:
“To my little brother Bob. Oh how this letter gets harder and harder to write. You’ve got more talent in your little finger than I do in my entire body. You’ve got dreams. Chase them.”
“It hit me pretty hard, but at the same time it was a huge emotional push,” Kugler recalled.
Upon his discharge, Kugler and his Nebraska bride, moved to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career.
He enrolled in the prestigious Groundlings Theatre & School -- a training ground for some of the nation’s best comedians and actors.
Not to brag, but Kugler was pretty good.
At his first audition, he landed the role.
Actors sung his praises:
“Matt LeBlanc said I was funny.”
He landed a small part in "Argo" with Ben Affleck.
He rubbed elbows with Jack Black and Kevin Bacon.
“I made more money in one day’s work for a Jeep commercial than I did in entire year as a Marine staff sergeant.
Within months he was a card carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Groundlings invited him into its very selective advanced class.
Veterans Affairs made him the face of its national awareness television campaign “What Lies Ahead.”
His first film role was in “Evasion,” a 2013 Indie war film by Japanese directors Koichi Yoda and Yuta Okamura.
“It was in this film that a young Nebraska boy's dream came true. I wasn't chasing it ... I was living it,” Kugler wrote in his blog.
But the more he lived the Hollywood dream, the more he felt disingenuous taking what he calls the ‘Hollywood approach’ to life.
“One of my biggest dislikes for the Hollywood scene was the shameless self promotion ... I never really felt comfortable with it,” he wrote in his blog.
It chipped away at his soul.
“I felt like I was going against all I valued and putting my career first,” he said.
His marriage crumbled. His wife returned to Nebraska, Kugler stayed in Hollywood. But his head couldn’t stay in the game. He asked to audition for a recurring part in CBS’ hit drama “NCIS.” It was to be his big break.
“I bombed the audition,” Kugler said, shaking his head.
“I wasn’t ready. … I’m still not ready, but I’m getting there.”
One of the biggest struggles for soldiers is knowing who they are when they take the uniform off, Kugler said.
“A sense of identity is lost,” he wrote in his blog. “‘Who am I now without that uniform and rank?’
“We are individuals, and the military doesn't exactly support individuality,” he wrote. “The process of finding ourselves after separation is a difficult task. I know I'm still finding mine.
Emotionally needing to reconnect, he returned to his Nebraska roots.
Unfortunately, it was too late for his marriage.
“Resentment is such an evil evil thing,” he said in reflection. “I resented my ex-wife, the job, myself.”
He used the time to find himself. He volunteered with veterans groups -- especially those that entwined physical fitness with mental healing: Team Rubicon and Team RWB, Ride 2 Recovery and Save a Warrior.
He and Bella took to the road, traveling the beaten path, stopping to photograph and appreciate the things that might otherwise be missed.
It brought him peace -- one shot at a time.
People told him they liked his photos. That he should do something with them.
It took a lot of guts for Kugler to bring his art to the Hildegard Center for the Arts.
Einspahr admitted she, too, was skeptical when he said let me show you what I’ve done.
But his photography along with his passion and personality quickly won her over. Kugler represented the heart of the Hildegard Center and its Healing Arts program.
Einspahr introduced him to professional photographer Angela Carroll, who guided him through the selection and framing process of his works, which will hang in the veterans hospital through the end of the year.
And it’s opened doors.
Some of his photographs are on display at Meadowlark Cafe at 16th and South streets, through November.
Kugler and Bella, who's now 8 and battling terminal cancer, remain on a mission, to be true to themselves, and inspire others to do the same.
“It's not about the photos, it's about the story. Everyone and everything has a story, and they're all worth hearing,” Kugler said in his blog. “I hope to motivate and inspire others to get out and listen to the stories that are being told around them everyday, as well as writing more chapters in their own story.”