Battered but never broken
Despite serious injuries, one soldier returns home with no regrets
Like many fathers, John Hughes has spent a lot of time watching his son play youth football this fall.
He's quick to mention with pride his son Nick's 16 touchdowns "14 rushing and two passing" as a member of the Lansing Middle School eighth-grade team this season.
Hughes said he felt lucky to be able to share in his son's accomplishments this year but was even luckier to be back home in Lansing at all.
Injured in action
Lt. Col. John Hughes began that long trip home last August aboard a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, when he was med-evacuated from his post in Iraq after serving 10 months of a 12-month deployment.
Earlier in his tour, an up-armored Humvee transporting Hughes and other members of the U.S. Army's 19th Material Management team through Mosul, Iraq, swerved to avoid detonating an improvised explosive device that had been placed directly in the vehicle's path by a group of insurgents. Hughes' driver was forced to decide in a split-second whether to crash into a row of parked cars where another bomb could have been or to plow headlong into a concrete median.
The driver chose the median.
The resulting accident ruptured two discs in Hughes' neck, tore the labrum in his shoulder, tore a bicep tendon and resulted in substantial rotator cuff damage.
Hughes later would undergo surgery to insert a 3.5-inch titanium plate into his neck.
But on that day in November 2005, Hughes' second-in-command, Maj. Stuart Anderson, was able to pop Hughes' shoulder back into place, and Hughes was able to manage for a while taking minor pain relievers.
Despite the seriousness of his injury, Hughes simply did not want to leave.
"At first, I didn't think it was that bad," Hughes said. "I said, 'I can make it these last few months.' I didn't want to lose my team."
But after months of carrying out the team's mission of transporting food, water, ammunition and equipment in Iraq, and having survived mortar, rocket and sniper fire, Hughes' body eventually wore down.
The Combat Action Badge recipient was sent home to receive adequate treatment and rehabilitation.
By that time, Hughes had lost three members of his six- to nine-member team one who returned home due to severe family hardship, one with a broken ankle, and, most tragically, Maj. Anderson to a deadly helicopter crash near Tal Afar, Iraq.
"I think about him a lot," Hughes said of Anderson, who was a husband and father of two from Peosta, Iowa.
"That's why I wear this thing," he added, pointing to a black, metal remembrance band he wears around his wrist with Anderson's name, date of birth and date of death inscribed on it. "When I'm having neck pain:or can't sleep well, I think about Stuart and know I shouldn't complain. I got to come home, but my friend and comrade did not."
'World class' treatment
Hughes was released to Lansing briefly on convalescent leave before flying in August 2006 to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he spent several weeks.
At the center, Hughes witnessed firsthand the effects of the war on many of America's troops.
"I saw a number of horribly injured soldiers," Hughes said. ": Some soldiers come back and they're physically, mentally and emotionally damaged."
Hughes said he learned a lot at Walter Reed and made an effort to speak face-to-face with some of the worst cases there.
"What struck me most is that most of them had an extraordinary attitude. They weren't going to let this break them," he said.
One of his most vivid memories was watching an Army medic, a double amputee, leading an exercise class for other amputees.
For Hughes, it drove home a lesson his father used to tell him: "That no one loves or appreciates a soldier like another soldier."
Although he said the treatment he received at Walter Reed as an inpatient was "world class," Hughes acknowledged the center struggled to treat all of the soldiers requiring outpatient care.
"The outpatient system was overwhelmed, but, fortunately, the problems have since been corrected," he said.
Home for good
Hughes finally came home permanently around Halloween 2006 and was reunited with his family daughter Carmen, a senior at the University of St. Mary; son Jimmy, a freshman at Kansas City Kansas Community College; son Nick, an eighth-grader at Lansing Middle School; and wife Marlene, whom he calls "the best Army wife on the planet."
"There's no job tougher in the Army than an Army wife," Hughes added, "They've got to hold down the fort."
Hughes found pleasure in little things he had taken for granted, like being able to sleep in a comfortable bed and not having to walk 100 yards to use a port-a-potty.
"The biggest thing I missed, though, beside my family," Hughes said, "was coaching Lansing youth football."
Hughes had coached the Big Red fifth- and sixth-grade team before his deployment, and although he was able to watch all of Nick's games on DVDs his wife sent him, he said it has been special this year being able to see his son play again live.
Hughes still hasn't fully recovered from his injuries. His arm doesn't have the strength to even throw a ball anymore, and reactions to medication he was taking have caused permanent eye damage.
But the 27-year Army veteran and 15-year Lansing resident who still serves on post at Fort Leavenworth as a reservist on active duty said he has no regrets about his service in Iraq.
"If you're going to raise your hand up, stand in front of the flag and take an oath, that's an obligation," Hughes said. "It's a duty. If you're going to accept this, you have an obligation to fight : even if you're an old, beat-up guy like me."