Marine Corps and Army veteran Darren Hafford not only raised awareness about veteran suicide prevention as he did pushups in all 50 states, but he found love and staved off a potential kidnapping, too.
“It’s an amazing story. You can’t make this stuff up,” he said.
More on that later. First, a little background on the biceps.
Hafford, 50, is the son of Joyce Williams and stepson of Ron Williams of Beloit. His father Dan Hafford lives in Footville. Hafford attended the former Wright and Cunningham elementary schools, Lincoln Junior High and graduated from Beloit Memorial High School.
He dabbled in photography and was a Beloit Daily News delivery boy. He had a penchant for details and admits he was teased a bit over his short stature.
He surprised many, perhaps even himself, when he went on to serve four years active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps, which included service on an anti-terrorist team. He also grew several more inches at age 18.
Hafford then went on to spend six years in the Wisconsin Army National Guard while in college and deployed to Hungary to support Operation Joint Endeavor in 1996-97 and to Honduras to cover the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Mitch in 1999. He served as a military police officer and then as a public affairs and TV reporter for the 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment out of Madison.
Moving to Los Angeles permanently in 2008, he worked as an actor and extra, appearing in more than 20 TV shows and movies. He then began working behind the camera, working for outlets such as HGTV, DIY Network, Food Network, Bravo and the Game Show Network.
He had participated in previous pushup challenges after being moved by the loss of a soldier to suicide. Hafford had interviewed the soldier for the Wisconsin Army National Guard newspaper and was shocked by the news of his passing.
“I was naïve. I thought I could tell if someone was having a tough time,” he said.
Hafford’s mission this summer has been raising funds for One Tribe Foundation, previously known as 22Kill, which started the 22 pushup challenge in 2015. It has since and rebranded itself to include counseling for first responders. People can find links to the GoFundMe site from Hafford’s site, 50statecapitolsin50days.com. As of Thursday, he had raised more than $6,300 on GoFundMe and close to $2,000 in cash.
Hafford did 50 pushups in 50 state capitals in 50 days. His trip kicked off July 4 in Austin, Texas, and culminated Aug. 22 in Hawaii. As part of his trip, he drove more than 15,500 miles around the country and flew to Alaska and Hawaii. Never one for new vehicles, he took his trusty 2006 Chevy truck with more than 320,000 miles on it.
“The truck’s air conditioning died the first day, and a service shop in Nevada fixed it for free,” he said.
He had a few more hiccups that resulted in a breakdown.
It was then that a gorgeous lady saved the day. Jennifer Raymond Whitehouse was a girl he was Facebook friends with in New Hampshire who was originally from Beloit. Although the two grew up a few blocks from each other, they never recalled meeting until a class reunion a few years ago and became Facebook friends.
“The pushup challenge pushed us together,” he said. “She’s like a Lego to me. I’ve never clicked with someone so well.”
Raymond Whitehouse had to help usher Hafford around as he got his vehicle fixed and flexed her biceps a few times.
“We’ve done seven different cities out of the 50 together,” he said. “She saved the mission.”
Hafford found more adventure when he stopped a would-be abductor in Topeka, Kansas. On Aug. 19 he was taking pictures at the Capitol there when he saw a woman in peril who said her purse, cellphone and mother were missing. He called police and started walking around the building. He eventually spotted the woman’s car, which had been across the street. The woman’s 86-year-old mother was in the passenger seat with a strange man in the driver’s seat. After confronting the driver, the man tried to run, but Hafford contained him until police arrived and arrested him. The woman was reunited with her daughter.
Now that Hafford is back, he is planning a book on his adventures and a film he hopes will be shown at the Beloit International Film Festival.
“It feels great. It was an amazing adventure, and the fantastic thing about it was how many strangers helped along the way,” he said.