SAN ANTONIO — Before sunrise on Nov. 7 — what the Army calls O-dark-thirty — soldiers from Brooke Army Medical Center's Warrior Transition Battalion line up in a parking lot. Some stand in formation on two legs, some stand on one leg with the help of crutches or canes. Some stand on legs made of moldable plastic or carbon fiber.
Spc. Colton Sasser, 21, of Casper, waits in his wheelchair for the 7 a.m. call to attention. On April 15, a 200-pound bomb exploded under his truck in Afghanistan, leaving a crater 16 feet wide and 10 feet deep. The blast knocked Colton out for 15 days, exploded part of his spine and required the amputation of his left leg.
This battalion is one of three dozen Warrior Transition Units stationed at Army bases around the world. The units formed in 2007 to better treat a growing number of seriously wounded soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than 50,000 military men and women have been wounded in a decade of war, more than 1,500 of them amputees. Advances in battlefield medicine have saved the lives of thousands of soldiers who would have died even a generation ago. More soldiers have come home from these two wars, but more have come home broken.
These soldiers, standing in formation at O-dark-thirty, walk long and often painful roads to recovery, their only mission is to heal.
This is Sasser's walk.
Just before the commander's call to attention, Sasser stands, walks gingerly around his wheelchair and rolls it out of the way. He stands for the entire formation, something he couldn't have done even a month before.
Growing up in Casper, Colton was the baby, the youngest of five siblings. He was mature for his age, mother Kathy Sasser said, because his older brothers and sister always had friends running around the house.
When Colton was about 7 years old, the family went to Mexico. If his parents couldn't find Colton, they'd look in the pool and find Colton exercising with the old ladies. They thought he was too young for scuba diving, but he was the first one ready. He knew he could do it, and he did.
Colton played every sport he had time for: soccer, baseball, football, hockey and more, said dad Steve Sasser. Though his siblings had curfews, Colton never needed one. He just didn't get into trouble.
He grew up with his cousins, Zack and Max Bolger of Casper. Their grandfather would babysit and the kids would run circles around him, roughhousing and rebel rousing. They'd play paintball in Colton's backyard. If a stray ball hit the neighbor's house, they'd shoot the stain clean with water pistols.
Max and Colton took hunter safety together. They hunted ducks, geese and rabbits after school, and every year their families took a hunting trip to the Black Hills. Once, Colton brought home the biggest turkey his mother had ever seen.
"I want you to cook it," Kathy remembers her son saying. "I want to taste that turkey."
She couldn't even get it in the roaster.
The Army always interested Colton, but not overly so. His father had served in Vietnam. His oldest brother served in the Marines. He had casual conversations with recruiters in high school, and his parents started getting phone calls. Nothing ever came of them.
After graduating from Kelly Walsh High School in 2009, he studied criminal justice at the University of Wyoming. Not that he wanted to be a cop, he just felt pressure to pick a major.
One day, he told his dad he was going to talk to a recruiter.
"There was this war going on, and I didn't want my own son to ask someday if I had served in the war," Colton said. "I didn't want to have to tell him that I did not."
Kathy supported the decision to join the Army, but worried as mothers do.
Her son had never been on an antibiotic, had never known what it was like to be sick, she said. He didn't even have a cavity when he left. War is war, and physical injuries can last a lifetime.
She can still picture Colton the day they said goodbye, standing in the door frame of the Laramie house he shared with Max and Zack: He was Colton — strong, tall and whole.
They'd been driving for hours on April 15, a hot and sunny day in the desert. That morning, they took indirect fire at the Forward Operating Base while coming back from breakfast. The incoming alarm sounded and three mortars hit the FOB.
"Great. Another day," Colton thought.
In a five-vehicle convoy, Colton drove the second-to-last truck — an MRAP, a 40-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored fighting vehicle designed to withstand the massive bomb blasts that mark the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He drove slowly on a road already pocked with bomb craters.
He'd been in Kunar province, Afghanistan, just about a month and a half. As a soldier, he was where he wanted to be.
"In basic, everyone wants to deploy," Colton said. Getting orders was like basketball tryouts. Commanders hung lists of names, and soldiers crowded around to see where they'd be heading. Colton transferred to Fort Carson, Colo., with the 4th Infantry Division, the same division as his dad. He was part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, Alpha Company. His MOS — Military Occupational Service — was 11 Bravo, the ground pounders.
He arrived in Afghanistan at the beginning of March.
The squad his squad would replace trained them on patrol ride-alongs. All were quiet. The seasoned soldiers bragged that they'd never hit an IED — an Improvised Exploding Devise. Then they'd immediately find some wood to knock.
Colton was part of the QRF, Quick Reactive Force, covering the entire province. The QRF could get called up for basically anything.
On April 15, it was called to escort an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team to check out two possible IEDs.
Truck commander Staff Sgt. David Nowacyzk, 32, rode shotgun next to Colton. He was a husband, a father and a stepfather. It was his third tour in Afghanistan, and he'd already earned a Bronze Star. Men called him "Nova."
Sgt. Mark Johnson manned the guns on top.
The dismounts — Spc. Brian Cherry, Sgt. Corey Mathis and Sgt. David Campbell — joked around in the back, Campbell told the Star-Tribune. They asked Nova if they could smoke. They couldn't. They threatened to zip tie Johnson to his gunner's seat. Johnson squirted a whole bottle of water on the dismounts below him.
The convoy rolled through an area notorious for IED attacks. It approached a large crater in the road and the trucks in front of Colton's maneuvered around it, veering either left or right.
Colton veered left.
Spc. Matthew Simms heard the blast, then felt it. The medic, riding in the back of the MRAP behind Colton's, turned his head and saw a dust cloud through the windshield, as if he were looking out from inside a narrow tunnel. Then he saw the MRAP in the air. It seemed to hang there for a long time.
"If you were to slam a door and it kind of rumbles a bit, that would be the only way to describe it," Simms said of the sound, only a thousand times louder. "You hear that and then you feel a pressure wave go through you."
The truck's front end flipped over the back end before crashing nose-first to the earth. The back slammed down and flipped the truck sideways onto the driver's side.
Inside the truck, Campbell couldn't get his bearings.
"Mathis!" he cried, but got no answer.
He saw a light and realized one of the escape hatches was open. Mathis came to and the two of them pulled Cherry out of the truck and onto the road. There, Mathis' hip gave out. He collapsed.
Campbell ran back for his brothers.
This was Campbell's second deployment. In Iraq, he'd seen EFPs — Explosively Formed Projectiles — scary little buggers that shoot hot balls of copper through trucks and men. This was different. Bigger. He remembers it like a dream your mind tries to shut down after waking up.
Johnson hung from the gunner's turret harness, unconscious and barely breathing. Campbell climbed into the truck, cut the harness and ran back out to pull Johnson free.
Simms, the medic, didn't run right in. He was trained to be tactical, and this could be an ambush. The convoy surrounded the blast site, securing their position. A combination of adrenaline and training made Simms feel like he was working on autopilot, tending the wounded as Campbell carried them over. They weren't screaming, Simms said, probably because it hurt too much. But they were moaning.
The truck's front was disintegrated, Campbell said. The engine was gone, the hood demolished, the windshield shattered.
Colton was breathing, so he ran to check on Nova who had been blasted out of the truck.
Nova was obviously dead.
Campbell ran around the truck again and took a knee. He reached through the broken windshield to touch Colton.
Do you know who I am? Campbell asked.
Yeah. You're Sgt. Campbell, Colton answered.
Debris covered Colton — broken pieces of the dashboard, Nova's seat, heavy radio mounts. Campbell pushed it to the back or to the side, working Colton loose. Something was holding him in.
Campbell cut off Colton's kit and vest. That wasn't it.
Are your legs broken? Campbell asked.
I don't think so, Colton answered.
The impact had yanked Colton's right seatbelt strap so far back that it was no longer visible. Campbell cut it free with Colton's own pocket knife, grabbed Colton under the arms and pulled. Colton helped by giving resistance.
Simms noticed right away that the right arm was broken, twisted at an odd angle. But Colton was awake and answering questions. A good sign.
His back hurt, Simms remembers Colton saying. His feet felt like they were burning. He couldn't breathe.
He cut open Colton's pants and discovered arterial bleeding in the right knee. Simms applied a modern battlefield tourniquet, a tool more widely used since the middle of the Iraq War. Long considered a treatment of last resort, tourniquets can prevent soldiers from bleeding out in the field, giving them a fighting chance at survival.
Simms removed Colton's boots to see his heel bones pushing out of the skin. He secured Colton in a neck brace, put him on the spine board and tried to insert a nose tube, but Colton kept telling him to go see about someone else and trying to pull it out. Colton still couldn't breathe so Simms started mouth-to-mouth.
Campbell was watching Simms work when his adrenaline wore off. He fell forward like a board, landing on his face. He didn't know it then, but the blast had compressed his spine and broken his tailbone.
When the helicopter came minutes later, he could no longer walk.
Colton lost consciousness in the medevac helicopter.
The copter crew reported spotting an area of matted grass, probably where the attacker had been sitting and watching the convoy. He likely detonated the bomb when the first big truck, Colton's truck, drove over.
It makes sense, Campbell said. The size of the MRAP trucks — basically Humvees on steroids — would make them appear that they were carrying more soldiers, a chance to inflict the most damage.
"He's one of the strongest people I've ever met in my life. That's 100 percent true," Campbell said of Colton. "I've never seen anyone that messed up still coherent, still able to tell me who I am."
The helicopter flew to the closest surgical base. Colton had already taken several units of blood, but needed more. Medics called ahead, asking for donation from anyone with Colton's blood type, A-positive. Lines had formed by the time they landed. Colton took 35 units of blood altogether. He was then evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany.
His parents got the call on Sunday afternoon. Tuesday, the Army asked if they had passports. If they wanted to see their son, they needed to get to Germany as soon as possible. They boarded a flight on Wednesday.
Before they left, a nurse put the phone to Colton's ear, though he wasn't responding.
We love you, his parents said. We're coming.
In the hospital, tubes snaked in and out of Colton's body, black and blue and stitched together. His kidneys had quit and he was starting to swell. He'd gain 100 pounds of fluids before they started working again weeks later. His hands were tied down because he kept pulling the hoses from his face.
Top to bottom, Colton had 23 serious injuries: fluid on the brain, broken neck, cracked sternum, broken spine, ruptured spleen, four broken ribs, deflated left lung, lacerated liver, two broken legs, among others.
The Sassers took photos throughout Colton's recovery. It felt morbid at first, snapping photos of their unconscious son hooked to machines and monitors.
"But I said to myself, 'I'm going to show him how far he's come.' I just said he's going to live and he's going to make it," Kathy said.
After a couple of days, Colton was stable enough for transport to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. His parents flew with him in a cavernous transport plane, a C-17 Loadmaster — the same kind of plane that brought Colton to Afghanistan six weeks earlier. Pressure in the air expanded Colton's bowels and doctors had to remove the medical staples extending down his abdomen. His parents could only watch as doctors worked to save him.
A woman beside Kathy asked her to pray. Kathy thinks she was an angel.
In the nightmare, Colton is on life support in an ambulance. He knows he's hurt, but he doesn't know how or where.
Colton is lying on a cot facing another man. Colton knows the guy isn't going to make it, the way you just know things in dreams. The ambulance stops before it gets to the hospital and the doctors call time of death. Colton watches as they slit the man's throat. Colton understands it as a kind of medical mercy, but the pool of blood is getting bigger and bigger and creeping closer and closer.
Colton's coma lasted 15 days. He remembers nightmare after nightmare. In a normal dream, when you fall off a cliff, you wake up before hitting the rocky bottom. Colton just never woke up.
It was like scary story after scary story.
Coming out of the coma wasn't sudden. Colton didn't open his eyes and say, "Hello."
At Walter Reed, Steve and Kathy could only wait next to Colton's bed. Doctors came in and shouted: Colton! Wake up! You're going to be OK!
They didn't know if he was deaf, blind or paralyzed. They were trying to break through.
His parents asked Colton to squeeze their hands or blink his eyes if he could hear them, if he knew where he was. One day, Colton squeezed a light response. Then, he slightly blinked his eyes.
"It was just a little bit every time. It was like Christmas all over again. Each day, a new present," Kathy said.
Recovery came in a series of small victories. Two steps forward, one step back.
For a period, Colton underwent a surgery every 24 to 48 hours, more than 14 surgeries in all, not counting other routine procedures. Infections developed in his blood, urine and lungs. Then it was blood clots, then blood thinner, then a high heart rate caused by the 3 ½-week dialysis. A piece of shrapnel had entered right above Colton's bottom, missing his spine by centimeters. Doctors couldn't operate on his back until that wound healed.
The coma caused stress ulcers in his stomach. One night, Kathy was suctioning fluid from his mouth. Colton said he didn't feel good and touched his stomach. Blood started pouring from Colton's mouth, dark and clotted. To Kathy, it looked like Jell-O. She ran out, screaming for the nurse.
His parents thought he would bleed to death. Colton apologized for getting blood everywhere.
Up and down the hallways, families kept similar vigils next to soldiers' bedsides. Young wives waited for good news about young husbands. Parents prayed over injured sons and daughters barely old enough to drink a beer. Children of National Guardsmen in their 40s and 50s hoped for breakthroughs for their mothers and fathers.
Families reported to each other — "good day" or "rough day." Steve remembers one dad, a double amputee, putting one kid on his lap and one on the back of his wheelchair to race down the hall.
"You leave Casper, Wyoming, to see what is going on in the world. You say, 'Oh. This is war,'" Steve said. "I'm not saying it's right or wrong. It's the way war is. It doesn't affect you until it's real close and personal.
"Here we think we are out of Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan," Steve said.
"Well, not for everybody."
Steve walked by one room and saw a mother pulled right up to the bed of her unconscious son, quietly looking at him.
How's everything going? Steve asked.
Good, she answered. They'd just returned from the brain trauma center in Tampa.
Something about the way the woman sat next to the bed, so similar to the way Steve had waited for Colton to wake up, made Steve think that whatever happened was recent. He wanted to offer his good news as something of a comfort.
How long have you been here? he asked.
The woman had been waiting for more than a year.
Max Bolger, 23, flips through a magazine from 2005, another day, another waiting room.
He's escorted his cousin to dozens of doctors' offices since being designated Colton's nonmedical attendant in May.
This appointment is at the San Antonio Veterans Affair hospital and it's an important one. It will be used in the process of determining Colton's disability percentage, which will impact benefits for the rest of his life.
Colton waits slumped way down in one of the waiting room chairs, the cushioning never soft enough. He rests his leg on another chair to relieve the pressure in his back and hip.
Max heard of the attack while grocery shopping in Laramie. He missed a call from his brother, Zack, and knew something was wrong because Zack left a voicemail. Max hates voicemail.
Max put college on hold and went to Walter Reed soon after Colton woke up. He decided early that he would see Colton through all that followed. Colton's parents had businesses to run, and he realized that recovery would take awhile. If Colton had been paralyzed, he would have spent the rest of his life taking care of him.
Max followed when Colton was transferred to the VA's San Antonio Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center for those with severe injuries to more than one organ system. He watched Colton melt nearly away, dropping from 200 pounds to 128 because his traumatic brain injury took away his appetite. Max and Kathy made milkshakes and tried to sneak extra calories into Colton's food.
One day, Colton looked at Max and said, How about a Baconator? Max drove to Wendy's and brought back the massive hamburger. Colton ate so much, he couldn't eat for a couple of days. But he has been slowly putting on weight since.
Max moved with Colton to the Wounded Warrior Transition Battalion two months later and lived with him on base. Max drove Colton to appointments, handed him his toothbrush and did the laundry. He helped him shave, cut his hair and administered medication.
He met soldiers like Colton fighting to put themselves back together. He watched men with no legs take those first awkward steps, women learn to run obstacle courses on custom-made prostheses.
"I have no fear of failure anymore," Max said. "For me, I'm fully capable of doing whatever I want. I see a lot of drive from these guys and it's inspired me: Your time on Earth is short. I'm going to make the most of it."
Max knew Colton would be all right the first time he saw him at Walter Reed. Whatever healing his body needed, his cousin was still a Sasser — tough as nails and able to take it as well as he could give it.
Colton had lifted his left leg, amputated about four inches below the knee. Colton had instructed doctors to cut it off when it was clear the injury would give him serious trouble for the rest of his life.
Hey look, Colton had said to Max, bending the knee so the nub bounced up and down.
My lucky Nemo fin.
Colton's gait trainer stands in front of a mirror. He takes slow, careful steps on the treadmill while watching the dip of his shoulders and the swing of his arms.
Tammy DeBevoise, a student from the University of Miami, pushes a button to quicken the pace.
"Whoa! Let's not get carried away here," Colton says.
"See how your shoulders are dipping? You want to rotate them forward."
Colton's face puckers as he concentrates on his shoulders in the mirror.
He is working at one of more than a dozen stations in a training room at the Center for the Intrepid, a state-of-the-art, 65,000-square-foot rehab center at Brooke Army Medical Center.
Nearly every station is full.
A soldier — who cannot be photographed or named because of his special forces status — walks up a steep ramp, over and over, on two metal legs.
A bell rings and a therapist turns around. A man, both his legs amputated above the knee, has attached a bell to his wheel chair to help him move through crowded rooms. The therapist steps aside and he motors past, smiling at his joke.
Another man holds his fake leg against his shoulder like a rifle. He points it around the room as if he's clearing a building in Iraq.
For people who have seen one, maybe two, amputees in their lives, the Center for the Intrepid opens the eyes.
The center is a one-stop shop for amputees and other severely injured soldiers. It combines rehab training, prosthetic labs, research and education all in one building.
"This really popped up after Iraq," said Alicia White, a physical therapist who has been working with Colton for three months.
"This building is completely funded by independent donations. The American people saw the need and gave their money."
In the spring of 2005, as more amputees and soldiers severely injured by bomb blasts started making it off the battlefield, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes board proposed a state-of-the art rehabilitation facility. More than 600,000 Americans gave money. It opened in February 2007.
White's job is to train soldiers to trust their new legs or arms. Prostheses are amazing pieces of technology, she says. Colton has just to stick in his leg and it will take him from point A to point B. But it takes practice to get from A to B to where no one can tell you're wearing a fake leg.
"We also have to work on the brain, to make it trust the prosthesis, to make it remember how to walk," White said. "It's like learning how to walk all over again."
Colton comes early to physical therapy to stretch his muscles, particularly his right hip, which is basically just bone. A bone shard from his spine severed the nerve, so the muscle is useless right now.
He works out for several hours a day, alternating between his upper body and lower body. Then he hits the pool.
On this day, White starts him on the "obstacle" course. He walks a straight line, heel to toe. He steps through the rungs of a ladder laid flat on the floor. He stands on a wobbly blue pad, practicing one-leg balance on his new limb.
"Having fun yet Sasserfrass?" White asks, using the nickname she adopted when she got a taste of his Sasser sass.
"Now walk without a limp. That would make me happy."
When Colton first arrived, he was in his wheelchair 100 percent of the time. His broken back has been the biggest hurdle to his recovery, the pain indescribable. He had a prosthesis but was only standing on it for an hour at a time in the parallel bars.
With every patient, White sits down to discuss their goals and to find common ground. She can't tell them what to want and expect them to work for it.
"Nobody can understand an amputee like another amputee. I tell them all the time, 'What do I know? I have two legs. I'm just telling you what I see,'" White says.
Most amputees want to get back to "normal" activities of daily living, to walk through Walmart without anyone guessing that they are walking on a fake leg. Colton wanted to be on his legs all day, get back to working and back to his home life, White says.
Now, Colton doesn't use his wheelchair. He's taken 12,000 units of botox in his back and it has done wonders for the pain. Soon he will work on jumping and eventually running. Before the attack, Colton was the second-best runner in his platoon.
In the meantime, there's that pesky gait trainer he needs to finish. After several minutes, Colton is tired and has a harder time holding his form.
"How tall are you?" White asks.
"6-2," Colton answers.
"Well, stop walking like you're 5-2. Here's your homework: Take big steps on both legs. Take bigger steps on your left leg. Swing your arms."
Step. Step. Step.
Colton watches himself in the mirror, works to lengthen his stride. His left knee is weak and starts to ache. His nub rubs inside his prosthesis. He asks to take a break.
"Can you do two more minutes?" White asks.
"You mean three?" Colton answers.
"Yeah, that's it. Finish strong."
Colton wears a black metal bracelet on his wrist. On it, these words are inscribed: "SSG DAVID P. NOWACZYK IN ARMY ENDURING FREEDOM 15 APR KIA"
Despite the pain and struggle, April 15 is a day worth remembering. Campbell won a Bronze Star for carrying his brothers to safety despite his serious injuries, Colton said. Simms' battlefield medicine is credited with saving Colton's life.
At Thanksgiving, Colton returned to Casper for the first time since his deployment and was welcomed home by hundreds. He returned for several weeks this month to celebrate Christmas. He will return to San Antonio on Saturday and spend 12 more weeks in his grueling physical therapy regimen.
Healing is his job now, and the bracelet helps him remember that.
In three months, Colton will med-board out of the Army with an honorable discharge. Before the attack, he wanted to make the Army his career and go into the Rangers or special forces. But he doesn't want an Army career behind a desk.
He'll come back to Casper and keep working to get stronger. He'll spend time with his girlfriend, Holly Sanftner of Casper, go back to school and find another major. Of course, he'll go hunting with his family. He is getting a "mountain leg," a prosthesis with a greater range of motion designed to walk over steep, uneven trails. He's building himself a long-range rifle and will work on his long-range shooting.
"I don't look at this as a barrier," he said Dec. 21 from his parent's Casper home.
"I am excited for the future."
Still, he carries the memories of April 15. They inevitably come, triggered by a drive or in quiet moments when his brain isn't otherwise occupied.
What if he had veered right instead of left? The full force of the impact would have hit his side of the truck instead of Nova's. Maybe Nova would still be alive.
He called Nova's wife during his recovery and has talked to her several times since. It pains him to think of what Nova's family is going through.
So Colton wears the bracelet every day, never takes it off. It reminds him of the life that was lost on April 15, and of the actions of his fellow soldiers. It reminds him of the healing, and the living, he has yet to do.
Information from: Casper Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com