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MARION – Ian Michael and his Human Hug Project are hardly slowing down.

Michael returned to the Marion VA Medical Center on Monday, once again doling out free hugs to veterans and non-veterans.

He didn’t stay too long. He and three colleagues used the Marion center to begin a roughly 800-mile bike ride to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder. They plan to get there in a month.

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Ian Michael hugs a worker at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Marion on Wednesday. Michael, along with Gino Greganti (left) and Larry Malone (right) are combat veterans and are on a tour of VA facilities where they offer hugs to anyone willing to accept one.

“We just want to raise awareness for PTSD and bring about social acceptance,” said the Iraq War veteran, discharged in 2004. “I think from my experience having PTSD and saying I am a vet was a very shameful process. I didn’t want to admit to anyone that my soul was hurt.”

Michael, whose parents Clif and Karen White live in Marion, began giving out hugs wherever he could as a form of therapy to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He soon discovered that hugs work, reversing what was a dark course into one that now has the 34-year-old saddling his bike to bring the therapy to others.

With plans to stop in Lexington, Kentucky, Michael will add to his goal of visiting all 155 VA centers in the country. So far, the hugs project has been to 17 centers to give away hugs.

The PTSD campaign, “Pedaling 4 PTSD,” is a new extension of the Human Hug Project, designed to educate the public and veterans about its symptoms and how to get help.

Marion VA spokeswoman Beth Lamb said the hospital administration welcomes the effort, including being made part of it through the Hug Project.  

“We embrace it. We’re just so proud of them and so happy for them. We just wish them safe travels,” Lamb said.

More information about the project is available at http://www.humanhug.me/, through which a gofundme account has been set up to help support the awareness campaign.

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Nick Mariano is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering Saline, Franklin and Jefferson counties.

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