McKINNEY — Army Spc. Billy Hughes survived eight attacks from improvised explosive devices during his two-and-a-half combat tours in Iraq.
Then — a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee in 2005. Someone took a photo of him lying on a stretcher, with his face bloodied and his arm peppered with tiny bits of shrapnel.
"That's when it hit, almost right behind my head," he said as we talked in his comfortable living room in McKinney. "I have shrapnel wounds to my face and throat."
Hughes got bits of metal lodged in his neck... and faces of his fellow soldiers from Iraq are lodged in his mind.
"Thirteen people I knew personally did not come home," he said.
But there's one more comrade he'll carry in his heart this Memorial Day for Carry the Load — Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe.
Hughes never met Sgt. Cashe, but they served in the same part of Iraq.
"I believe Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe deserves the Medal of Honor,” he said. "I know I'm not alone in that."
He is far from alone in that.
There's an online campaign to get Alwyn Cashe the nation's highest military honor. Members of Congress, veterans, and journalists are joining the push.
His story astonishes even the most experienced combat veterans.
Cashe's Bradley Fighting Vehicle burst into flames when it hit a hidden bomb in November 2005.
"He was set on fire, and he pulled some guys out," Hughes said. "Then he went back in. He went in three separate times."
Survivors report Cashe's uniform burned off. Then his skin. Yet he kept going back.
Hughes knows what it is to be cramped inside a Bradley loaded with men and ammo... the heat, dust and noise.
"I couldn't think of a worse situation," Hughes said. "To run into a burning vehicle while soaked in gasoline, as it's loaded with ammunition. And the only thing you can think of is, 'I've got to save my friends.'"
Reports say Cashe and fellow survivor Douglas Dodge also came under small arms fire while trying to rescue the burning and disoriented soldiers.
Billy Hughes didn’t just read about Sgt. Cashe; he first heard the details when he attended the memorial service. Cashe died from his burns at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio; four soldiers he tried to save also died.
Hughes will carry that load as he walks with thousands of vets and civilians in Dallas. Last year, he carried his lieutenant, Michael Fasnacht.
Hughes saw him die.
"As soon as I looked out and saw the Bradley behind us, the IED hit," he said, explaining how he was looking through the Bradley’s periscope. "That was really rough for me, because he was also the person I could go talk to when things got rough."
Things aren't so rough now. Billy Hughes is an engineering student with a family and a home on a quiet street to display his hard-earned awards.
When he heard about Carry the Load last year, he thought he'd go down to Reverchon Park and walk a mile or two. He ended up walking all night.
"I look over and there's a man walking. He had burns on his body and... and lost part of a limb," Hughes recalled.
It turned out the stranger and Hughes both served under Sgt. 1st Class David Salie. Salie also was killed by an IED.
It's a lot to carry, all those soldiers he fought with. And Sgt. Alwyn Cashe, he continues to fight for.
But Billy Hughes will walk again this Memorial Day at the Carry the Load event in Dallas.
"It was good for my soul,” he said. “Good for my spirit."
And it might be good if someone carried Billy Hughes, too.
Read more about Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star: