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Roy "Critter" Hutson is the first to tell you: He was issued 210 rounds of ammunition when he deployed to Afghanistan, and he gave the same 210 rounds back when his tour ended.
Roy "Critter" Hutson of the DE National Guard and his buddy Keith Emmons are prepping for an epic 5,600-mile, 7-day motorcycle run to raise money for Operation Homefront and the veterans it helps.
He never fired his weapon and was never in a combat situation in any of his three deployments.
But the Felton mechanic, a staff sergeant with the Delaware Army National Guard, was part of a "mission from hell," made 19 trips through Afghanistan's treacherous Salang Pass and was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service.
That star now is painted on the side of his Harley-Davidson, the one he bought in Afghanistan and plans to ride across the country to raise money for Operation Homefront. Operation Homefront is a national nonprofit network of volunteers that provides financial help and other support to veterans of post-9/11 conflicts. The nonprofit opened a new office in Middletown last week, and Hutson was on hand for the ribbon-cutting because he knows from experience how important that help can be.
Operation Homefront paid for extensive repairs to his hurricane-hammered home while he was recovering from an injury he received in Afghanistan.
Hutson's run across the country – which he's calling the Epic Coast to Coast to Coast – starts at 4 a.m. July 20 at American Legion Post 7 in Harrington. He and Keith "Straight Edge" Emmons of Millsboro plan to ride across the nation, do a touch-and-go at Surf City Harley-Davidson in Huntington Beach, California, and head back home in time for an eight-hour celebration at Post 7 on July 27.
Along the way they hope to connect with other members of the Desert Knights Motorcycle Club, most of whom have served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Hutson is vice president of the Southern Delaware chapter.
It's a 5,600-mile run, as Hutson figures it, which means they should cover about 800 miles a day.
That's an intense stretch by any measure, but Hutson is undaunted.
More daunting, he'll tell you, was that two-lane stretch of road known as the Salang Pass, a treacherous but strategically important path through the Hindu Kush mountains. The Salang stretches about 47 miles, climbing to 11,000 feet above sea level – with an aging 1.6-mile tunnel built by the Soviets almost 50 years ago adding to the perilous journey.
The Salang tunnel trimmed more than two days off the alternative route between northern and southern Afghanistan, but long backups of vehicles – often stretching for miles – have continued for years.
Whether fair weather or foul, the Salang is a nerve-wracking run, with its switchbacks, deep ruts and heavy traffic. It's even more challenging in the huge 40-ton military trucks and tractor trailers Hutson often drove, delivering ammunition and other critical supplies to troops. The unlit, unventilated tunnel added a foreboding element to the trip, choked as it is with fumes and dust, pitch dark and offering no margin of error.
The narrow pass claimed plenty of side mirrors along the way, Hutson said, as vehicles tried to inch by without sufficient clearance.
But the passage is at its worst in winter, when avalanches have swept vehicles into deep ravines and sudden blizzards transform the road into something like a luge track – without the guardrails.
Hutson's "mission from hell" was like that. He and his fellow troops – 17-18 loaded trucks – had to drive the Salang several times. With poor weather conditions it took 28 days to complete the job.
Another terrifying passage was through blizzard conditions. Cars and trucks were stuck or sliding into each other. Along the way, his tractor trailer jackknifed when he got T-boned by an oncoming civilian truck that was sliding across the ice. He had his passenger get out of the cab and opened the driver's side door to do likewise – only to discover there was nowhere to go but down. His door opened onto blackness that ended who knows how many feet below.
When the sun emerged the next day, he was awestruck – again – by the magnificent Hindu Kush.
"How could something that beautiful try to kill me just 12 hours ago?" he wondered.
Just before Hutson was to return home in 2012, he injured his knee while working with a truck, an injury that required surgery and extended recovery.
As he recovered, Hurricane Sandy hammered his house, ripping its rafters to shreds. The person he calls his "war-time hero" – Tammy, his wife of 20 years – didn't know what they would do to fix it.
That's where Operation Homefront came in. He was connected to them while he was at Fort Meade, recovering. They evaluated the situation and his credentials.
Soon Carl Deputy's construction crew was on the job.
"I was leery at first, dealing with people on the phone," said Deputy, who has known Hutson for years as fellow members of the Felton Volunteer Fire Co. "But I sent them [Operation Homefront] a quote – and they sent me back approval. They were on the ball."
Hutson now wants to return the favor with this long-distance ride. He needs donors and other support and has a last-minute hope that someone will join the Epic ride with a support van.
"There's folks out there who need help who will never ask for it," said Danny "Sme" Grove of Millsboro, an active-duty Air Force buddy who planned to ride with Hutson until he injured his hand. "Just like Critter. He was going to have to make do, but someone came and helped him."
Helping other troops by helping Operation Homefront became a new mission, Grove said.
"What is there to do? You can say, 'That sucks for them or I hope someone does something about that.' But Critter's actually doing something and it's huge," he said. "What are we good at? We're not good at making money or we'd be rich. We're good at riding motorcycles."
Story by: Beth Miller: Sunday News Journal & delawareonline.com.
Novistretch is Proud to Support the ride. Enter the promo code "HOMEFRONT" between now and August 25th and 10% of your purchase will be donated to Operation Homefront.