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Brain surgery to bear hugs: One wounded warrior’s story

Retired Capt. Lawrence "Rob" Hufford, USAF, yells triumphantly after lifting 190 kg (418 lbs), setting a personal best in the heavyweight category of power-lifting at the 2018 Invictus Games. 500 wounded warriors from 18 countries gathered in Sydney, Australia to compete in adaptive sporting events from 21-27 October 2018.

Retired Capt. Lawrence "Rob" Hufford yells triumphantly after lifting 418 pounds, setting a personal best in the heavyweight category of power-lifting at the 2018 Invictus Games. 500 wounded warriors from 18 countries gathered in Sydney, Australia to compete in adaptive sporting events from October 21 through 27, 2018.

Rob Hufford, Department of Defense Warrior Games athlete and Team Air Force member, is lifted up by his teammates after being awarded the "heart of the team" award for Team Air Force durinh the Games closing ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 9, 2018. To determine the recipients of the heart of the team award, athletes representing each service team voted for the member of their team who they believe embodies the heart of their team. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

Rob Hufford, Department of Defense Warrior Games athlete and Team Air Force member, is lifted up by his teammates after being awarded the "heart of the team" award for Team Air Force during the games’ closing ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 9, 2018. To determine the recipients of the heart of the team award, athletes representing each service team voted for the member of their team who they believe embodies the heart of their team. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. (AFNS) -- Born with a birth defect causing seizures, battling anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and facing divorce and separation from a child, can be a lot for anyone to handle, but with a community of support things can get better.

For retired Air Force Capt. Rob Hufford, no statement could ring truer. From an all-time low to bearhugging England’s Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, while in Australia to compete in the Invictus Games, things are looking up for Hufford.

“I researched the effect of lingering hugs,” Hufford said. “Psychotherapist, Virginia Satir, said four hugs a day for maintenance, eight hugs a day for survival and 12 hugs a day for growth.”

After graduating the Air Force Academy in 2006, Hufford became a civil engineering officer and over the next nine years, was stationed in four locations and deployed to Iraq twice.

It was during this time that Hufford’s life seemed to fall apart and things began to spiral. He reached the limit on the medicine he could take for his condition, which was a good and bad thing.

The drugs were causing anxiety and anger, but without them, his physical activity was limited until surgery. His outlook became bleak.

In January of 2013, he had a temporal lobectomy to remove a piece of his brain.

“It was about the size of a tube of Chapstick,” Hufford said.

In 2015, the secretary of the Air Force decided that he should be medically retired. In 2016, his marriage fell apart and he became geographically separated from his son.

Keeping a positive attitude while coping with everything, was a constant struggle.

His lifeline came in the form of friend, Dana Lyon, Air Force Academy javelin and strength conditioning coach. She had noticed that Hufford was a shell of what he once was and pushed him to become involved with the Air Force Wounded Warrior program.

In June of 2017, he attended Offutt Air Force Base’s AFW2 Caregivers, Adaptive Sports, Resiliency, Empowerment and Transition event. Hufford was able to share his stories with others who were suffering and got to know himself better.

"I could finally see the effects that denial issues and my illnesses had had on my relationships with other people,” Hufford said. “It was a turning point in my life.”

It was also during the CARE event that he heard about the Warrior Games. He applied for the winter trials at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and was one of 40 selectees and 10 alternates to participate in the games at the Air Force Academy.

The next thing he knew, he was invited to participate in the Invictus Games in Sydney, Australia. The event, created by Prince Harry, Duke of Susex, in 2014, was inspired by the Warrior Games created by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2010.

Hufford said he was honored to see Prince Harry during the sailing event. He called out to the prince to inform him that he could expect to receive a hug when he met him again.

The Duke decided that there no better time than the present and accommodated him with a big bear hug.

As Hufford continues to compete in Wounded Warrior programs, he has also made an effort to pay it forward. He works with Omaha organizations that help to identify what he calls “invisibly wounded” individuals throughout the community.

His efforts don’t go unnoticed.

“Rob is always the person there supporting everyone else regardless of what he is going through,” said Marsha Gonzales, Warrior Care Support branch chief.
Impressed by his attitude, Gonzales assisted Hufford in returning to Air Force employment.

He is currently the lead engineer for the upcoming Offutt AFB runway restoration project and the Omaha Lincoln Airfields due to kick off in 2019.

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