JOHNSON LAKE, Neb. -- Stephen Hunter opened his hazel eyes and blinked at the stars in the night sky. He struggled to breathe, almost as if someone held a pillow over his mouth and nose. As the fog cleared from his brain, he glimpsed worried faces hovering over him. Anxious voices asked confusing questions: "Are you OK?! Can you move your arms and legs?!"
He could, but it hurt like hell.
His right leg felt as though someone had trapped it in a vice, cranking it tighter and tighter. And each time he attempted to move another body part, a brand new misery gripped him.
But his greatest source of agony was still to come. Not what hurt. ... But why?
Hunter had just finished his junior year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., when he went "barking up the wrong tree." On May 27, 2012, at a lake house near Johnson Lake, Neb., the cadet climbed nearly 40 feet up a 110-foot cottonwood and fell.
It was 2 a.m., and he was plastered.
"Yeah, I was drunk," said Hunter, now a second lieutenant assigned to the 17th Civil Engineer Squadron at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. "And I thought it would be the best idea in the world to climb that tree."
He had started drinking rum and Coke the previous day at around 12 p.m., giving "high" noon a whole new meaning. He also threw back a few beers and even sampled some moonshine, a corn whiskey brew, because they were, after all, in the Cornhusker State.
He didn't stop drinking until his 6-foot, 170-pound body crumpled in the dirt at the base of that tree.
Hunter's friends said they saw his head and shoulders hit the ground first. Then his legs bent over his back like a scorpion's tail, which is how he ended up facing the Big Dipper.
"I'm not exactly sure why I fell, but the theory is I passed out in the tree," Hunter said, as he let out a sigh of disgust and rolled his eyes. "I was so drunk, and that, combined with the exertion of the climb, probably caused me to black out."
The sudden impact with earth busted his skeleton in 25 places, not enough to challenge Evel Knievel's Guinness World Record of 433 fractures of 35 different bones, but more than enough to convince Hunter he didn't want to take a stab at the title.
He broke 20 transverse processes, those small wing-like back bones attached to the vertebrae. Or, for folks who didn't pay attention in anatomy class, those little disks discarded from a plate of baby back ribs. Additionally, he fractured both wrists, a rib and his left pinky finger. And he snapped his right femur in half.
"That femur reeeaaallly stings," he said with a cringe, revealing perfectly straight front teeth, which hid the bottom left molar he also sheered that night.
Hunter punctured a lung, as well, which accounted for his trouble sucking air.
"Walking the dog backward," the lieutenant said his wild night started with an ill-conceived mind-set.
"I had just finished my third year at the academy with all its rules and restrictions, and I thought I was entitled to cut loose, go a bit crazy," he said. "I was a ticking time bomb."
So he and six buddies left the disciplined environs of the prestigious Air Force school tucked away at the base of the Rocky Mountains and headed into the heart of Tornado Alley for a long four-day weekend. They jet skied, swam, barbecued and even shot guns.
And they drank. A lot.
They were about to wrap up their night of fun, when Hunter snuck off to scale the tree.
"I didn't tell anyone, because I knew they'd stop me," he said. "They would have said, 'Don't do that, idiot'; so I deliberately set out on my own."
Not long after the then 21-year-old was fighting for his life following his headfirst plunge from roughly the height of a three-story building.
"I knew I was in serious trouble when I got an unpleasant surprise every time I tried to move a different body part," he said. "It was like someone was pounding me with a sledge hammer."
At some point while lying there in agony, dismay overtook him. Not because he thought he was dying, but because he'd connected the dots that led to the trunk of that old cottonwood.
"I had been selfish and stupid, and I felt overwhelmed with guilt," he said. "I ruined our weekend and made everyone worry.
So even though I was hurting, I remember trying to gut it out and
be pleasant, because I was embarrassed. "
An ambulance rushed him to the hospital, and he passed out four times along the way, overcome with pain.
He didn't get any relief until a morphine drip took him to his happy place. Even that proved short lived as the powerful medication caused him to have vivid dreams in which he played tennis and soccer. Ever try swinging a racket or kicking a ball with freshly busted limbs? It was a rude awakening followed by tortured screams.
The hardest thing he had to do, though, was break the news to his mom and dad, both of whom live in Texas, in suburbs just north of Dallas.
"I have awesome parents," he said with quiet affection. He then swallowed hard and took a moment to compose himself. "They didn't get angry or disappointed. They were just worried for my health ... and for my career."
He said his mom, an emergency room nurse by trade, grasped immediately that her oldest son had miraculously escaped death. He could hear the fear in her voice, as he detailed his injuries one-by-one. His little brother later told him his mom turned white as a ghost and threw up immediately after she'd hung
up the phone.
His dad, who had been in church when Hunter called him, couldn't seem to grasp what his son was trying to tell him.
"When it finally sunk in how hurt I was, he took it hard,"
the Airman said. "You could almost hear his heartbreak."
"Those were the two toughest conversations of my life."
Hunter underwent five surgeries to put him back together again and occupied a hospital bed for two weeks. After that he spent his entire summer break -- three months -- recovering
at his mom's home in Plano, Texas.
Sporting a back brace similar to a turtle's shell, casts on both arms and brackets drilled into his right leg, he found himself confined to a wheelchair. He couldn't even do the basics, like feed or clean himself. His mother assisted him with things she hadn't had to help him with since he was a toddler in diapers.
"Moms are the best," Hunter, now 23, said with a sheepish grin.
When time came to return to the academy to start his senior year, Hunter remained "chained" to the electric wheelchair. He thought nothing could be worse than that until he graduated to a walker a few weeks later.
"I hated the walker," he said. "I got my fair share of weird looks scooting around with that thing. It was humbling. I wasn't very impressive. You learn to get over yourself really quick."
With the help of family, friends, doctors, therapists and academy leadership, Hunter, against all odds, recovered enough from his injuries to graduate on time with the class of 2013. He said his rehabilitation proved grueling. And to get his diploma, he still had to successfully complete five physical education classes.
He did so, albeit with a lot of teeth gritting.
"I still hurt physically," he said. "I have a plate in my right leg that causes me discomfort, my left wrist is still stiff and sore where my bone dislocated and jammed into my carpal tunnel, and my pinky doesn't hardly bend at the top knuckle. Doctors have assured me I will suffer from arthritis as I age. So I will pretty much pay for this the rest of my life."
The physical debt yet to be paid appears guaranteed. But after graduation he had a chance to put the incident behind him. A fresh start. Nobody at his new base had to know of his past misdeeds. Nobody twisted his arm and forced him to share his story as
a form of punishment
"I'm not going to lie; I'm still very embarrassed to tell this story," Hunter admitted.
So why do it?
"I should be dead, but I'm not," he explained. "There must be some reason for that. If telling my story helps one person make better choices or makes someone think twice about binge drinking, then everything I've been through will have been worth it. One mistake doesn't define me, but what I do or don't do about it might.
"I'm not going to hide from this."