All of Centennial Junior High School greeted Spc. Colton Sasser outside his house on Stafford Street.
They surrounded him on Monday, filling the street, girls waving banners from atop boys’ shoulders.
“Welcome Home Colton!”
“Spc. Colton Sasser, our Hometown Hero!”
Sasser had already spent an hour shaking hands, greeting hundreds of people who met him at the airport and lined the street to wave flags for the welcome caravan that stretched more than two-dozen vehicles long — cop cars, fire trucks, motorcycles and Corvettes.
By the time he reached his driveway, Sasser was favoring his left leg, the one he told doctors to cut off after it was clear it was beyond saving. He held his back, broken in multiple places in the 200-pound bomb blast that flipped his Humvee and killed one of his friends.
He greeted as many of the students as he could. He posed for dozens of photographs. He smiled through his obvious pain. When he finally collapsed on his parents’ couch, more than a hundred people were still gathered outside, their voices audible through the closed door.
“You’d think he was an actor in a ‘Twilight’ movie, with all those kids out there,” said Max Bolger, Sasser’s cousin who has lived with Sasser since May as his non-medical attendant.
The show of support overwhelmed Sasser’s family on Monday, the first time the soldier returned to Casper since he deployed to Afghanistan in March.
“Our family cannot thank enough all the organizations and individuals who showed up,” said Steve Sasser, Colton’s dad.
“It’s impressive. This is how our town feels about it.”
On April 15, a bomb exploded underneath Sasser’s Humvee. The concussion broke many bones in his body and caused a coma that lasted 15 days. He suffered 24 serious injuries, including those to his brain, spleen, both legs, right arm, lungs and a back. Shards of his spine severed nerves in his hip. Shrapnel missed his spine by centimeters.
Since June, he has been recovering at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
The Star-Tribune recently went to Texas to document Sasser’s progress. Advances in battlefield medicine save more soldiers than has ever before been possible, including Sasser. It also means that more soldiers return to the states facing long and painful recoveries. The Star-Tribune will document Sasser’s recovery in a story next month.
Monday, though, was all about Casper welcoming home a hometown hero.
Sasser’s plane arrived 40 minutes early, but hundreds of people were already waiting. Twenty-five motorcycle riders of the Patriot Guard came from Cheyenne, Worland, Douglas and across the state to escort his caravan to Stafford Street.
“We don’t do this nearly as much as we’d like to. We’d like to do it for every soldier,” said Richard Parks of the Patriot Guard, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.
“Honor and respect. The only reasons we are here.”
Tarryn Bailey, 7, stood in front of a banner almost three times as long as she was tall. It was signed by every student at Park Elementary. She and her mother read that Sasser had been hurt in Afghanistan, and Bailey wanted to do something nice for him. She pushed her school to make the banner.
Sasser, dressed in Army camo, was the first passenger through the terminal doors, and the crowd reacted immediately. He waved shyly as the crowd cheered, and then he found his family.
For the next two hours, he was the center of attention.
“Last time I saw you, I wasn’t in the best shape,” Sasser told Sen. John Barrasso, shaking the senator’s hand. Barrasso visited Sasser in Walter Reed, when Sasser was still wrapped in gauze, tubes snaking in and out of his body. His body swelled with nearly 100 pounds of fluid after his kidneys stopped working.
At the airport, strangers and friends handed him flowers and quilts and hand-made posters. Veterans of World War II and Vietnam stepped forward to give him their thanks. Sasser thanked them back.
Students from Mount Hope Lutheran School started singing “America, the Beautiful.” Sasser stopped shaking hands to listen, his arms around the pastor of the church, which Sasser attends.
“He made a sacrifice for us. The bomb hurt him bad. It feels good to sing for him,” said 9-year-old Carmyn Buckman, a fourth-grader at Mount Hope.
Paige Wilson, 8, agreed. “I feel very thankful and very helpful.”
Sasser listened to the entire song, giving his undivided attention. When they started singing the national anthem, he paused to listen to that too.
“Good job! Thank you!” he shouted, clapping loudly in an outpouring of appreciation to for all the people who’d gathered to show theirs.
It took him nearly half an hour to make it through the airport, collect his bags, and slide into his dad’s truck.
It was hard to imagine that less than two months ago, he couldn’t stand for much longer than 10 minutes. But as the morning wore on, he started grabbing at his back. His limp grew more pronounced.
Sasser will stay in Casper for about a week, return to San Antonio for several days and then come back home for a longer stay. His mother, Kathy Sasser, held half a dozen bouquets for her son as he slowly made his way through the crowd.
“This is just overwhelming, wonderful,” she said. “I’m kind of speechless, to tell you the truth.
“He looks good,” she said, waiting for his luggage.
“I can tell his back hurts a little. All I’m interested in is cooking his favorite Thanksgiving dinner.”