“BEEP … BEEP … BEEP.”
Senior Master Sgt. Kenneth Huhman lays motionless in bed as his alarm clock abruptly brings him to awareness.
He slowly opens his eyes and stares at his ceiling, his clock still blaring its early morning reveille.
He doesn’t dare move for fear of disturbing his short respite from pain.
“Well, here we go,” he says to himself.
And with that, searing pain shoots through his shoulder, back and knees as the 14-year combat controller’s mind struggles against his body to rise out of bed for another day of work.
Years of deployments, fire fights and rucking hundreds of miles with heavy equipment strapped to his back have left him with a broken body. He can’t shake the doubts of whether or not he’ll be able to play catch with his children when he retires.
“I was at a point in my career where I thought I was going to have to give it all up,” said Huhman, who spent four years in the Marine Corps Force Recon. “I was no longer functional on the team.”
That morning three years ago was the beginning of Huhman’s road to recovery to reverse the damage the rigorous combat operator lifestyle inflicted upon his body.
“I was at a point in my career where I thought I was going to have to give it all up. I was no longer functional on the team.”
He entered in the Human Performance Program — a U.S. Special Operations Command program designed to rebuild his body and prevent further injuries that could put him back on the sidelines.
The program, which has been implemented throughout all Air Force Special Operations Command special tactics squadrons and its 5-level schoolhouse, treats special operators in a way similar to how the Air Force approaches new weapons systems and aircraft.
“These guys are the weapons systems, and we are the maintainers,” said Capt. Scott Youtz, a physical therapist at the Special Tactics Training Squadron and former special operations weatherman. “Our weapons system is the human body. When something is broken, we fix it.”
Other human weapons systems’ maintainers include nutritionists, physical therapists, strength and conditioning coaches, and sports psychologists.
“When a guy blows out his knee, it’s like an engine going out in a C-130 (Hercules),” Youtz said. “If you were going to fire a weapon over and over again or fly an aircraft on mission after mission, you’re going to have to provide maintenance.”
Working together, the team designs a workout and rehabilitation plan specifically for each operator aimed at improving performance, decreasing injury and drastically lengthening the careers of deployable operators.
“When I came through here, injury prevention wasn’t even a phrase,” Youtz said. “We no longer show up for (physical training) and try to go to maximums every set.”
Currently, a typical workout for Airmen at the STTS is about an hour long, bookended with warm-up and cool-down periods, and focuses on proper form to prevent injury.
AFSOC officials have also teamed up with the University of Pittsburgh’s sports medicine team — a team of exercise physiologists who regularly study some of the world’s best athletes — to open a sports medicine laboratory at Hurlburt Field, Fla., AFSOC’s headquarters.
“If you’ve ever seen Rocky IV, this lab looks like the Russian’s place,” Huhman said. “Finally, we’re getting the same science that top athletes and Olympians get.”
The UPIT team has been conducting a nearly yearlong study that tests operators’ biomechanics, with an emphasis on strength, aerobic power and maximums, and balance.
Huhman used the data collected in the study, to begin rebuilding his physical condition to resemble its pre-injury state.
“The information I received from the study helped me better understand what I should focus on to reduce injuries in the future and helped eliminate the injuries I already had,” he said. “This is making me strong and healthy. I crave to see where my deficiencies are.”
As an operator goes through the components of the study, each station is designed to measure physical movements the Airmen would typically make in a combat environment, such as jumping, falling, lifting and sprinting.
Throughout the year, the UPIT team has studied the special operators on several full-mission profile training exercises. The exercises are designed to test the operators’ ability to conduct missions, including jungle warfare, amphibious infiltration, and search and rescue below water.
“This is making me strong and healthy. I crave to see where my deficiencies are.”
The researchers also test the operator’s oxygen levels as they complete each mission tasking to determine which action is the most aerobically taxing, said Meleesa Wohleber, a UPIT assistant professor.
“By setting up baselines, it helps us be able to determine what a guy needs to have in order to be a successful operator,” Wohleber said.
With the rehabilitation Huhman has done since entering the program, he has been able to return to the field where he’s able to lead once again.
“The best place to lead is from the front, and the best way to do that is physically,” he said. “Potentially, I have nine more years to lead before it’s over now.”
During a jungle survival training exercise, Huhman led two groups of about 10 operators through the mountainous landscape of Hawaii. Throughout the training, Huhman taught the young operators lessons passed down to him from Vietnam War combat veterans.
As the unit maneuvered through the vegetation, the operators huddled around Huhman like football players huddle around their coach, each craving more knowledge. Huhman’s ability to operate again allows him to pass down those lessons taught to him early in his career.
He also rises from his bed every morning without the crippling pain that once caused him to doubt his future.
Now, the only doubt that creeps into his mind isn’t whether he’ll be healthy enough to play with his children, but if they’ll be able to keep up with him.