As best as we can determine, 10,740 American soldiers have been injured in Iraq. That's 10,740 familes turned upside down. One of those families is from Tahlequah, the Hudgens family.
When Russell Hudgens learned his son, Jeff, had been badly injured in Iraq, he began keeping an on-line journal. He sent News on 6 anchor Scott Thompson a copy, and being a father himself, it struck a nerve.
If you've ever been a father or a mother, a son or a daughter, a grandmother or grandfather. In fact, if you've ever loved anyone, this is your story, too.
Every night, for 2-and-a-half months, Russell Hudgens has retreated to a tiny motel room near the VA hospital in Tampa, Florida to pour out his heart. "Sometime in the early morning, November 18th, 2004, in northwestern Iraq, Jeff was injured. We understand his unit was involved with the detonation of improvised explosives, IED's." Click here to read Russell Hudgens' journal
. (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is available for download by clicking here
Jeff Hudgens was 17 and fresh out of Tahlequah High School when he signed-on with the Marine Corps Reserves. In Iraq just two months, that roadside bomb shattered his right hand, severed an artery beneath his left arm, and blew off the right side of his skull. Now at 19, Jeff Hudgens is learning to walk again. "Gosh, you never think that once they learn to walk and talk you're going to take them back through that again."
Parenting comes without guarantees, and love's protection reaches only so far. So on that night Russell and his wife, Sandra, got word that Jeff had a bad head injury, not knowing whether he was dead or alive, they pulled out the home videos. So they might reach back through the years and hold tight to what used-to-be. "To be able to hear his voice and see him even if it was in a younger body and voice it made me feel like he was still here with me, closer."
From military hospitals in Germany, Maryland and now Tampa, Florida, Russell has been by Jeff's side. Taking time away from his job as a science teacher at Tahlequah Junior High. During the day, he is Jeff's cheerleader. Right there as his son covers more of the hallway than he ever had before. "I'm motivated, yeah, we ought to have a camera crew here every day."
And at night, it's back to gather his thoughts in the motel room. To send out a missive to family and friends. To anyone who cares. A father's most heartfelt hopes. And desperate fears. "December 11, 2004. I know for a fact just from looking into my son's eyes there's more there than some of the doctor's think. I can't pretend to know how many of his former abilities Jeff will recover but I know Jeff is still in there and knowing what I know about him, the sky's the limit."
Jeff says his therapy is tougher than Marine boot camp. "Since my left side is paralyzed they always ask me to move my left side and it's frustrating because I can't really do it that often."
There are good days and bad. Maybe you saw one of the better ones in Time Magazine. That December day when President Bush showed up to pin a Purple Heart on Jeff's chest. And later that night, a proud father wrote. "In a moment I'll remember for the rest of my days, Jeff looked up at this man he'd never met, smiled without prompting, continued to smile as the President himself presented him with the Purple Heart. Needless to say, with three children, I've been affored countless moments of fatherly pride, each dear to me in its own way, but few have touched me as did this one."
No one can say with any certainty what Jeff's future holds. His doctor's marvel at his progress, and credit his family's remarkable support. VA Physiatrist Dr. Joel Scholten: "We certainly don't want to squash his hopes and say, oh that's not realistic, because we don't know for sure that it's not."
19-year old boys have dreams and Jeff is no different. "I'm not walking out of here, I'm running. Cause that's a dream of mine to be able to run again."
A father's dream as well. Of what could-have-been and what still might-be. "It's too early to know. But he's gonna do something and I think it's going to be something special and worthwhile, it's just a question of what Jeff wants to do."
Sandra Hudgens, Jeff's Mom, has been with her son since the end of January, when Russell came back to Tahlequah to be with the couple's other two teenage children.
This week, the entire family is together in Tampa.
Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund
825 College Blvd
Suite 102 PMB 609
Oceanside, CA 92057
[To make a donation in honor of Jeff Hudgens]