COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. (AFNS) — The end of an Easter egg hunt in 2017 brought Capt. Hunter Barnhill, 37th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot, down to the ground as his body was trapped in a seizure.
The seizure was a result of the brain cancer that doctors would soon discover. Within days and through the following months his family, friends and co-workers were helping Barnhill through one of the most difficult times in his life, but there was another helping hand already looking to grab hold of the pilot.
“There was an email chain between my commander at the time and somebody at the Air Force Wounded Warrior program (AFW2),” Barnhill said. “They had said something along the lines of ‘Capt. Barnhill just went under some serious brain surgery and we’d recommend him as a member of the AFW2 program.’”
He recalled going through physical therapy the summer after his surgery and he would watch the Invictus Games, an international adaptive multi-sport event, on his computer as he stretched and did his workouts.
“I was impressed,” he said. “If they could go through the traumas they went through and find their healing through different sports — I mean that got them this far — then why couldn’t I do it? That’s kind of where my interest in the Warrior Games began.”
He competed in a handful of adaptive sports during an AFW2 camp at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, which only motivated him further to try out for the Warrior Games team.
“When you get down to it, the real motivation is competing alongside other resilient Airmen,” Barnhill said. “I wanted to compete alongside them. These people at the Warrior Games know, in a way, what I’ve gone through. That’s a bond we all share.”
After the tryouts, Barnhill qualified for shooting, cycling and indoor rowing events and will be competing in all three events at the 2018 Warrior Games June 1-9 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“I grew up deer hunting and shooting, so I was immediately drawn to the air pistol and air rifle shooting,” he said. “I was never much of a cycler before I started training, honestly. I have never done any competitive cycling, but I used to bike everywhere as a kid and in college. I used rowing predominantly as a warm-up before workouts, but the indoor rowing in particular is one of those sports I have fallen in love with because of its introduction to me through the AFW2 program.”
The teams for each of the sports have Facebook groups where they can communicate with teammates, have live videos of workouts for instant feedback from their coaches, and review new workout routines or receive tips to help improve.
A lot of coaches, like Col. Todd Benson, one of AFW2’s shooting coaches, are active-duty members in the Air Force and have a large background in the sport they are involved with.
“Our warriors have taught me that two of the most important tools to recovery are humor and patience,” Benson said. “Lending an ear or igniting a smile can mean more to our warriors than you will ever know.”
Benson said from his experience coaching the marksmen over the years, helping the athletes overcome their different obstacles is a very rewarding experience.
“If you want to be inspired and humbled, meet a wounded warrior and ask them to tell you their story,” Benson said. “You will discover a renewed sense of patriotism and become energized to contribute to this great nation. It is an honor to coach an amazing Airman such as Capt. Barnhill. His drive, positive attitude, and amazing family have been an inspiration. I have no doubt he will inspire anyone who has the privilege to shake his hand.”
The shared experiences and sacrifices of the athletes build strong bonds between everyone involved, Barnhill explained. Everyone knows in a way what the person next to them has gone through and the team concept is what allows the program to work as a recovery tool.
“All through training, my wife, Crystal, has been really patient with me,” Barnhill said. “There’s been a lot of time I’ve had to spend training. She and my son have put up with me and my schedule because they know how much it means to me and it’s been really great. I really appreciate them for that.”
Barnhill said this supportive family dynamic is evident with other members of the team as well, and their families are willing to support the team by any means possible.
“All of the families are very integrated into the teams,” Barnhill said. “Athletes and caregivers, athletes and immediate family members, everyone’s on the team together and it’s a one-team fight.”
When the games or AFW2 camps are over, the families work with the athletes continuously to help them recover and progress personally and professionally. They are the heroes behind the scenes, Barnhill said.
“Everybody at the Warrior Games has one goal,” he said. “The goal is healing. There are second- and third-order effects that come from that healing, such as comradery and friendship. It’s those kinds of things that keep me coming back.”