Wounded ex-Air Force warriors come to Offutt for athletics, learning
It took a kick in the butt from a fellow ex-Air Force Academy athlete to get Omahan Rob Hufford off of his couch a year ago for the Air Force Wounded Warrior CARE regional event at Offutt Air Force Base.
The former Falcon football player, Air Force captain and Iraq War veteran had lost his military career because of epilepsy and resulting brain surgery. His marriage had fallen apart. He hadn’t seen the inside of a gym in 10 years.
He works as an insurance salesman, but Hufford, 35, now considers himself a full-time athlete. Last month, he set shot put records on five consecutive throws at the interservice Warrior Games in Colorado Springs. Later this year he’ll compete in the Invictus Games, begun by England’s Prince Harry in 2014 for wounded vets.
And the bearded, gregarious veteran is freely dispensing bro-hugs as a blue-shirted “ambassador” for the Air Force Wounded Warrior program, which is back at Offutt for the third consecutive year. This is one of six regional Wounded Warrior CARE events this year. It will continue through Friday.
“This program saved my life,” Hufford said. “It gave me an outlet. It gave me an amazing group of friends that had my back.”
About 120 current and former airmen are at Offutt for sessions that are focused on sports but also cover art therapy, comedy and yoga. Some are targeted to help service members facing the end of military careers to gain confidence and tout their job skills. Still others are designed to boost spouses and friends supporting loved ones with physical and psychic scars from their years of service.
Dozens of Offutt airmen are serving as volunteers during the games. In remarks delivered at Monday’s opening ceremonies, Col. Michael Manion, the 55th Wing commander, urged all Offutt airmen to stop by the gym and observe the program.
“You’ll be moved and inspired,” he said. “It’s so impactful.”
Shawn Sprayberry, a spokesman for the program, said about 8,500 current or former airmen have been involved nationally. The purpose is to use athletics to build a “brotherhood of blue” through competition and mentoring.
“They get this spark from sports and then, boom, they’re on their way,” Sprayberry said.
That’s how it worked for Hufford. The son of a former Notre Dame football player, he attended the Air Force Academy because he was offered a football scholarship. It took time to fall in love with the Air Force, and the camaraderie that came with military service. He graduated in 2006.
Three years into his service, and after two tours in Iraq, Hufford started to space out for short periods of time — what he calls “getting fuzzy.” That culminated in a grand mal seizure.
Hufford said he was misdiagnosed and mistreated by skeptical military doctors, until finally a physician’s assistant diagnosed him with epilepsy in June 2012. Seizure medication didn’t solve the problem. Finally, doctors operated and removed a chunk of his brain that he described as “about the size of a tube of Chapstick” just above his right temple.
He hasn’t had a seizure in nearly six years. But the surgery left him with a traumatic brain injury and some occasional short-term memory loss. It was enough to end his military career.
“My life as I knew it was over,” Hufford said.
He is in Omaha to be near his 5-year-old son. Now his life is about helping other wounded veterans get back their mojo.
“It’s about competition and camaraderie,” Hufford said. “It’s about teaching people how to use what they have to compete.”
“Through sports,” he added, “we grow.”