By: Barbara Blake
FLETCHER — Even as he stood in acute pain on one prosthetic leg and another horribly wounded leg, Staff Sgt. Ollie Hughes’ face radiated happiness and relief as he breathed in the fresh mountain air and watched his wife and children reunite with family on the tarmac at Landmark Aviation.
“I’m excited just to get away from the dang hospital,” Hughes said with a grin Saturday afternoon after he, his wife, Megan, and three of their four young children stepped off the corporate jet that had flown them to Asheville from the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
“Eight days of not looking at doctors, nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, recreation therapists,” Hughes said. “I can’t wait.”
It’s been almost two years since Ollie Hughes, on his second tour in Afghanistan, was hit by an improvised explosive device that took one leg and nearly destroyed the other. The months that followed have been a constant and painful journey toward rehabilitation at the mega-hospital complex in Texas, which Megan Hughes said is her husband’s “full-time job,” for now, as he works on his recovery every day of the week.
“His right leg was smashed, and that’s been much more of a problem than his amputation — we talk about the amputation being his ‘good leg,’” she said. “The right leg had more than 20 breaks from the mid-shin through the toes, and he spent 18 months (wearing) an archaic, medieval torture device,” she said, only half joking.
The family trip to the mountains, where Megan Hughes grew up and graduated from West Henderson High School, was made possible by Window World Inc., and the nonprofit Veterans Airlift Command, which facilitates free air transportation to wounded veterans and their families for “medical and other compassionate purposes” through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots.
It was the 36th VAC flight mission for pilot Johnny Johnston, of Hendersonville, a 23-year Army veteran who now flies the corporate jet for Window World, based in North Wilkesboro. It was Johnston, who served in Vietnam and has seen first-hand the struggles wounded warriors endure, who told his bosses about the opportunity to use the company jet for a higher purpose.
“It was pretty important to me, and the owner of the company agreed. We started volunteering with VAC in November of 2008, and it’s an important part of what we do,” Johnston said. “Most of the guys we’re flying have lost legs, arms or a combination of both, and they spend a great deal of time in the hospital,” he said. “It’s an honor to fly these missions.”
Ollie Hughes, 37, was injured April 11, 2011. He spent a month at Walter Reed Army Hospital and another month as an inpatient at the Center for the Intrepid, which Megan Hughes called “an amazing facility specifically for amputees and burn victims from the wars.”
“It’s a state-of-the-art facility built by 600,000 individual donors, and it’s just amazing,” she said. “They have all the equipment they need, lots of physical and occupational therapy and a staff psychologist, and they have their own prosthetics lab and a lot of cutting-edge equipment.”
As amazing as that facility may be, having the opportunity to get away to the mountains has the Hughes family over the moon, as well as Megan’s mom, dad and stepmother, who live in Henderson County and haven’t seen their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren since Christmas 2011.
In addition to reconnecting with family, the Hugheses will travel to Lake Moultrie in South Carolina on Thursday and Friday so Ollie — who enjoyed kayak fishing before he was injured — can take part in a kayak bass-fishing tournament put on by Heroes on the Water, another veterans nonprofit that provides relaxation, recreation and rehabilitation to wounded warriors.
The family’s gratitude to Window World and the Veterans Airlift Command for making the trip possible was palpable, as Megan and Ollie embraced the Window World staff and the children — 12-year-old Aspen, 6-year-old Willow and 4-year-old Elder (also a tree name) — enjoyed a basket of toys and treats the employees put together to entertain them.
Johnston also let the two younger children sit in his lap for a while as he piloted the seven-seater Citation Excel, surely leaving them with a lifelong memory.
“Yep, they were flying the plane,” he joked.
But Johnston was serious about his mission to fly the family safely to their loved ones and to give them a break from Ollie’s ongoing recovery.
“Military families are not rich. For a family like this to travel commercially would cost a tremendous amount of money, and they just couldn’t do it,” Johnston said. “And it’s extremely difficult for the injured service member to travel commercially, with layovers and stops and going through security — some just can’t do it, so this helps them tremendously.”
Johnston said being part of the Veterans Airlift Command has been “life-changing” for him and many others, and he has taken a Window World corporate office employee on each of his 36 missions.
“I try to take everybody in the office on one of these trips to meet these soldiers and just be around them,” he said. “I know they’ve gone through a tremendous amount of recovery — physically and psychologically — before we ever see them. But the stories I hear from these guys are just amazing … every one of them has a powerful story.”
Those stories are one of the reasons Megan Hughes wanted to return to her childhood home: to spend some of her vacation time laying groundwork for a nonprofit she hopes to launch in the coming months.
“I want to help bring information into civilian communities about how they can better reintegrate returning combat soldiers — I want to come to Hendersonville and Asheville and places that don’t have a strong military presence, to help aid those who are having problems.”
Hughes said she’s been working with some contacts in Hendersonville to determine how best to move forward, and she hopes to bring a group to the mountains in the next few months to present some sort of seminar or educational opportunity to get something started locally.
“I’m concerned not just for the ones with physical wounds, but mental and emotional wounds as well,” she said. “I’ve told Ollie before that we’re lucky — his are wounds you can see, and he’s treated differently than those with invisible wounds. But those with invisible wounds need as much help as we do.”