Five days before the military leave that was to take him from Afghanistan to be at his wife's side for the birth of his son, Breg Hughes caught fire.
The highly trained Green Beret, finally in his dream job as a Special Forces commander, struggled to free himself from the flaming wreckage of his Humvee, which had driven over a roadside bomb on May 29, 2012. Packed with a barrel of fuel, the 50-pound explosive device instantly killed his interpreter, severely wounded his fellow soldiers, sprayed fuel over his body and ignited a fireball.
"Fortunately, I wasn't carrying a grenade on me," remembers Hughes. In a trailing vehicle, Sgt. Zac Fuller, a soldier from Ohio, rushed to put out the fire that already had caused third-degree burns over 50 percent of Hughes' body.
"I was up and walking around," Hughes remembers. "I thought I was OK once the fire was out."
He wasn't. Skin already was falling off his hands, as he had removed his gloves moments before the explosion to fiddle with a radio. The rest of his protective equipment had burned off or melted onto his skin. Hughes couldn't speak because "I also had inhaled a bunch of fire," he says.
He would spend four months in the hospital, two months in the intensive care unit.
As gripping as his story of survival sounds, the decorated combat veteran says his young sons running around the family's backyard in Barrington have other hero options at home.
"Their mom flew helicopters," Hughes says. A retired Army captain, Allison Hughes now focuses on her "Heels on the Ground" charity, (heelsonthegroundforcaregivers.org) designed to help the spouses and families of wounded warriors who come home from military service with physical and mental complications.
Her agency is a joint effort with military counselor and caregiver Katherine Malavenda, who currently is in Puerto Rico while her husband works with Homeland Security,
The Hugheses, both 33, repeatedly express gratitude for the help they've received from the Green Beret Foundation, the Sentinels of Freedom and other military and civilian agencies, including the Barrington Area Community Foundation. But Allison Hughes says many caregivers still don't get the support and information they need.
Using the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, "Heels on the Ground" has raised more than $10,000 toward its goal of $50,000. It will sponsor a workshop Sept. 7 in Fort Bragg, N.C., a fundraising run on Oct. 12 and informational webinars on Oct. 7 and 22. The group plans a retreat in the spring for spouse caregivers of wounded veterans.
A 2002 graduate of the University of Albany with a degree in physics, Allison Hughes is working on her MBA at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, while her husband, a retired major, is working toward his MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a career as a financial adviser.
Allison Hughes flew UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters during her 12-month rotation in Iraq in 2005. She returned to Baghdad near the end of 2007 for a 15-month tour coordinating air support for troops on the ground.
"I met Breg as I was leaving Iraq on my second deployment," Allison Hughes says.
They developed more than a friendship and married in 2010. They lived in Japan, where her husband was stationed when he got sent to Afghanistan.
The bomb exploded on a Tuesday. By that Friday, Breg Hughes was back at a military hospital in San Antonio, about 170 miles southeast of his boyhood home in Sonora, Texas, awaiting a Monday surgery.
"His heart stopped once in theater (in Afghanistan) and he coded again in surgery," remembers his wife, who gave birth to their second son in her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., before she could travel to Texas to see her husband. They moved to Chicago because Breg Hughes' skin can no longer tolerate high temperatures.
A veteran of about two dozen surgeries, Breg Hughes still suffers from pain and a lack of movement.
"If my hand worked I'd be able to return (to his military command)," he says. "I'd still be doing it if I could."
As grueling as his recovery has been at times, he notes that his wife not only had to care for him, but she also had to maintain a home with sons Brogan, who turns 4 on Aug. 20, and 2-year-old Gavin.
"We're really lucky because Breg and I were really in love before he got injured," Allison Hughes says.
"We're certainly not the rule," adds Breg Hughes, talking about couples who separate in the wake of injuries and caregiving burdens.
Allison Hughes envisions "Heels on the Ground" helping caregivers and families after the initial aid and support winds down.
"Five or six years down the road," Allison Hughes says, "people are still struggling."