SAN ANTONIO (AP) — 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.