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Ms. Stark got the idea for the initiative after hearing news accounts of young, otherwise healthy troops being killed, not by enemy fire, but by heatstroke. She noticed an e-mail touting the benefits of the cooling agent at the heart of the hug one day while cleaning out a spam folder.  I got goose bumps, as she recalled. I knew this was what God was leading me to do. Today, there are thousands of people in every state and 58 countries who produce the neck-cooling hugs. Stark estimates 1.6 million hugs have been sent to America's finest young men and women since the projects inception. I've quit counting, actually, she confessed. You can spend time counting or you can spend time doing.

In addition, The Hugs Project sends care packages with small comforts from home and letters to those deployed overseas.

This, however, is not Starks first or most recent effort to give back to our troops. I was in high school and college during the Vietnam era, she said. I have regrets that I did not do anything for the troops in Vietnam. I was a girl. I didn't have a draft number. It did not affect me. But after I saw how badly the returning Vietnam vets were treated, I vowed not to let that happen again.

Starks initial foray into troop service came during the first military campaign in Iraq in the early 1990s. Recently widowed, she decided doing something for others might lift her own spirits. KWTV Channel 9 was sponsoring a program called Project Mail Call, an effort to encourage people to write letters to the troops. She suggested her small church congregation near El Reno get involved. The 30 letters she and her fellow parishioners originally wrote garnered 45 responses. Soon members of her church family began choosing service members to adopt as pen pals.

Today Stark and The Hugs Project have turned their attention to those who have made it home. The focus is helping anyone who suffers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). Her research shows there are at least 40,000 vets in Oklahoma, alone, who suffer with these conditions.

The Hugs Project has partnered with The Patriot Clinic in Oklahoma City and William Duncan, M.D., to provide hyperbaric oxygen treatment, at no charge, to veterans. Stark and Duncan met at a town hall meeting held by Fox 25 News to discuss veterans needs and concerns. The two sat next to each other when event organizers asked those in attendance to fill empty chairs in the front of the meeting room. Again, Stark cites Devine intervention for this encounter.

Stark explained that hyperbaric oxygen treatments consist of visits to high-pressure chambers that deliver 100 percent oxygen to patients. The treatment has been used traditionally to treat burns, diabetic wounds and decompression sickness or "the bends", a condition associated with SCUBA diving. More recently, the treatments have been proven effective to treat brain injuries seen frequently in vets returning from the Middle East.  Stark added the treatments have also been used to successfully treat non-military injuries and conditions, such as carbon monoxide poisoning, head injuries sustained in falls, beatings or car wrecks, and possibly even autism. She contends the treatments cure many brain injuries, while drugs commonly prescribed for the conditions only cause more debilitating side-effects, which can lead to suicide. Her statistics show there are 22 such deaths each day in the United States.

On the other hand, those who have visited the Patriot Clinic have been able to resume productive lives that include college and graduate school, steady jobs and stable homes.

These are miracle recoveries, she said. I have seen them first-hand. This is not something I hope will work; it does work.  Recently-passed state legislation has established a rolling fund that will allow the state to administer money to help cover the cost of some hyperbaric treatments. According to Stark, the federal government is required to reimburse states for any expenses they incur in treating veterans.

In the meantime, The Hugs Project is accepting donations to keep the all-volunteer Patriot Clinics running. Patriot Clinice are being being formed Nationwide.  Checks can be made out The Hugs Project and mailed to: PO Box 30236, Midwest City, OK 73110, or taken to The Hugs Project offices, 720 W. Wilshire Blvd. #105, in Oklahoma City.

In the News:  Military Hall of Fame Inductees Named

Please visit our website to see the 2014 list that of Oklahoman heroes that will be among 10 Oklahomans inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Inductees who were awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in combat.

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