Last week, Pfc. Colton Sasser opened his eyes for the first time in almost a month to find his soon-to-be amputated leg mangled, his back broken, and his chest stapled shut.

But as the 21-year-old Kelly Walsh High School graduate starts to recover from wounds suffered in a bomb blast in Afghanistan last month, it’s also clear he’s found an inner pride and a new motivation for what he should do with his life.

Speaking casually, almost nonchalantly, from a hospital bed at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Sasser said he’s determined to make the most of his life now for the sake of his fallen comrades, his family, and his country.

“I think it’d be a disappointment to them if I just moped around,” Sasser said. “People without legs or arms, they go on to do great things. It’s not like I’m 100 percent, but I have a heart and a mind.”

A lifelong dream

For as long as he can remember, Colton Sasser wanted to be a soldier – following in the footsteps of his father, a Vietnam War veteran.

Growing up in Casper, he played high school sports. He loved to hunt deer in the Black Hills.

“I guess you could say that he was just the all-American kid — just the average, small-town kid,” said his father, Stephen Sasser.

After graduating from Kelly Walsh, Sasser enrolled at the University of Wyoming. But after two years in college, he still had no idea what he wanted to study or what he would do after graduation.

So he turned to his childhood dream and called a local Army recruiter. A few months later, he found himself in Afghanistan, serving in the 4th Infantry Division — the same unit his father had served in.

On April 15, Sasser and his unit were called on to escort a convoy of trucks through a mountain valley. Sasser took the wheel of an Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle; his squad leader, Staff Sgt. David Nowacyzk, rode shotgun. Sgt. Mark Johnson, Sasser’s team leader, manned the gunner’s position.

Sasser has only isolated scraps of memories about what happened next.

He remembers dangling from his seat belt as others frantically tried to cut him loose.

He remembers a medic yelling at him, “Stay with me, Sasser! Chopper’s going to be here in five minutes!”

Then, darkness.

The armored vehicle had hit a 200-pound homemade explosive device – a bomb so powerful it left a 12-foot-by-19-foot crater in the road.

Sasser’s legs were mangled, his back was broken, and he was bleeding profusely from wounds all over his body. Next to him, Nowacyzk was killed immediately. Behind him, blood was pouring from Johnson’s head after it slammed against his .50-caliber rifle.

Sasser was flown to Jalalabad Air Base, then was quickly moved onto a plane for Germany. As his parents hastily boarded a flight to see their son, doctors removed Sasser’s spleen.

A few days later, Sasser was wheeled onto another plane bound for Walter Reed Medical Center.

But while in the air, the staples that zippered his chest started splitting open from the low cabin pressure. Medics frantically drained unit after unit of blood into Sasser and bound his wound back together as the pilots accelerated the aircraft toward Bethesda.

Admiral James Winnefeld, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was also on the flight along with his wife, could only look on. Later, when Winnefeld paid a visit to Sasser in the hospital, he said that he was sure that Sasser was going to die.

Moving forward

But that presentiment didn’t come true. About a week ago, Sasser woke up in a Walter Reed hospital bed to see his parents looking over him.

He was soon faced with an agonizing reality: Doctors didn’t believe they could save his lower left leg.

Sasser told them to amputate.

And his ordeal isn’t over yet. An operation to repair his broken vertebrae is scheduled for next week. His right leg is sluggish, he said, possibly from the tourniquet applied by the medic as they dug him out of his vehicle. He has screws in his right arm and right leg; his kidneys were damaged along with his spleen. Only his left arm was left relatively unscathed.

If his back surgery is successful, Sasser will then be fitted for a prosthetic leg and moved to Texas for months of physical therapy and rehabilitation.

Waking up to find yourself in such a situation, one could easily be forgiven for sinking into a deep depression, building up resentment or anger, or wallowing in self-pity.

Sasser has reacted with genuine optimism and a new look on life.

“He’s one of these people that he’s just very positive about what’s happened to him,” Stephen Sasser said. “He tells the doctors, ‘The worst day I had is yesterday. Today is the good day.’”

Talking at length with a reporter, the only time Sasser’s sunny resilience clouded over was when his thoughts turned to the death of his squad leader, Staff Sgt. Nowacyzk, who had just bought a house with his wife and was looking forward to returning home after three tours in Afghanistan.

“That was just the roughest part about it,” Sasser said.

Another feeling Sasser has now is gratitude. He’s been deluged with expressions of support — cards, emails, and phone calls from total strangers as well as his loved ones and friends.

Both of Wyoming’s U.S. senators paid him a visit; U.S. Rep Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., held up by a House vote, talked to him for half an hour on the phone.

Unlike his college days, Sasser now has an idea for his life: He hopes to finish college and eventually take over his dad’s construction business.

Sasser’s youthful enthusiasm about going to war is, understandably, gone now. But he said he has absolutely no regrets about his decision to go to Afghanistan.

“A lot of people go on and live life with the thought of, ‘I haven’t done anything. I have nothing to show for my life,’” Sasser said. “And here I am, I’m 21 years old — I think I have a lot to show for it as of right now, you know?”

Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at 307-632-1244 or jeremy.pelzer@trib.com.

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