By Gloria Montgomery, Army MedicineJuly 20, 2011
FORT HOOD, Texas, June 12, 2011 -- It was an "ah-ha" moment for Sgt. 1st Class Karl Pasco back in the late-1990s when he pinned on staff sergeant. The Army, he had decided, was his destiny. He loved Soldiering, relishing the ever-increasing leadership responsibilities as he climbed the noncommissioned officer ladder.
But in 2007, he was dealt a double whammy of "ah-ha" moments when he realized the wounds he suffered during his second deployment to Iraq would more than likely end his Soldiering career.
Today, the Warrior Transition Brigade, or WTB, Soldier ponders his next "ah-ha" movement with his 2,500 pound therapist, 'Mahindra', a tractor made in India, that appropriately symbolizes "rise and empower yourself."
Together, the two have spent the last three years clearing cedar pines and mesquite trees and moving rocks and dirt on the 15-acres Pasco and his wife, Joy, call home to create the Soldier’s quarter-acre dream: a 100-yard long, 60-foot wide, 15-foot high berm that is both a shooting range and therapeutic project.
Pasco originally had planned small, aiming for a six-foot tall wall. But he soon found himself going higher and higher, stretching the limitations of his 28 horsepower front-end loader, which he admits he forgets is smaller than it actually is, having almost tipped it over several times. His homemade shooting range, Pasco said, is a work in progress, that may never be "officially" finished because it gives him an excuse to fuel his love of the outdoors.
The outdoors, he says, is his retreat from all the "bad" stuff the painful memories, the lost friends, the catastrophic wounds he suffered from his two deployments to Iraq and the countless trips to military hospitals to repair his damaged body.
"When I’m on that tractor, all I’m thinking about is moving dirt," the two-time Purple Heart recipient said.
WAR BECOMES REAL
A shattered right leg, shrapnel in the left arm, 10 broken ribs, three fractured vertebrae, a broken upper jaw, a bruised heart -- injuries so severe that for several days Pasco floated in and out of consciousness. That was May 30, 2004, a day Pasco remembers as the day war became real when the vehicle he was in was hit by a 500-lb improvised explosive device, or IED.
"We lost our innocence that day and understood the true cost of war," said the former scout with 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. "War wasn’t laser tag in the woods anymore. It was real. People got hurt, people died."
Eight months later, Pasco returned to his unit and redeployed with them a second time in 2006. November 20, 2007 -- one month before the end of his deployment -- he was wounded by another IED that ripped apart his jaw, punctured his chest and left his right arm a mangled mess.
Mended now, with occasional trips to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for surgeries to rebuild his 37-year old face, Pasco agrees he’s lucky to be alive. It’s also why he greets every morning with an unbridled enthusiasm for life and begins every week with a Sunday morning walk with nature.
"Hey, I woke up and crawled out of bed," he cheerfully will say when asked how his day is going. "That’s pretty awesome."
Four years ago, the combat arms Soldier who tinkers with firearms like an exploratory surgeon, began planning his outdoor shooting range during his four-month stay at Walter Reed where he became determined to defy the professional “you can’t, and you won’t” opinions of his doctors and therapists who told him he’d never again be able to shoot a firearm.
"The shrapnel severed the radial nerve, which allows you to lift your hand and rotate your wrist," he said of his damaged right arm. "Plus, I don’t have any biceps, so I don’t have the muscle grip I need to hold a pistol in the proper shooting position."
But the stubborn "old coot" as he sometimes calls himself, refused to add "I can’t" to his mantra of life and began the blueprint to build his therapeutic window to the outdoors.
Planning, he said, not only motivated him, but it also helped him focus on something besides the pain. The end result -- unlimited access to a firing range -- thrilled him because it would provide him with around-the-clock occupational therapy to train his arm to shoot again.
"Never tell a determined and driven noncommissioned officer he 'can’t,'" the 1992 graduate of Judson High School, Converse, Texas, said, whipping out his cell phone like a proud papa to show his buddies photos of the berm he calls his range. "It’s one of those situations that I had been told so many times that I can’t that I had to figure out how I could. I also knew it would be up to me to do something to help me gain function back in my right arm."
At first, the avid firearms hobbyist tried shooting left handed at Walter Reed’s firearms training simulator. Although difficult, he shot well enough to meet Army standards.
"It just didn’t feel comfortable at all," said the Soldier who enlisted in 1992 and chose combat arms because he had an aunt in Kentucky, and he thought he’d be enjoying some of her home-cooked foods while in training at Fort Knox.
To compensate for his lost muscle grip, Pasco and a skeptical occupational therapist developed a pistol brace that enabled him to hold a pistol with his right hand, which he tossed six months after a tendon transfer improved his muscle control.
Even though he owned several rifles and could still shoot them with some difficulty, his desire for bigger and better didn’t begin until he got into the WTB and started participating in some of its deer and hog hunts. He then began his quest to find wooden stocks that he could modify to use as pistol grips for his rifles, which now include a Russian Mosin Nagant, a World War II-era rifle, and a Vietnam-era M1A.
"I needed something with a different caliber if I wanted to hunt game," he said, adding that he also needed a caliber that didn’t kick too hard because of his arm injury.
One of those hunts included a 2-day December adventure with the hosts of "Pig Man, the Series," a weekly hunting show on cable network’s Sportsman Channel.
"Although it was fun," said Pasco, who now coordinates some of those hunts as the WTB activities coordinator. "I just don’t know if I’ll ever again want to wait hour upon hour for ‘dinner’ in 20 degree wet weather. I couldn’t feel my toes, and I could see my breath."
Although he says all he thinks about is aiming and the mechanics of his firearm when he’s target shooting on his backyard, 100-meter range, he will admit to admiring what he created when he’s standing on top of the berm looking down at his creative magic, always thinking about his next step.
"I did this, with that little tractor?" he says, then discovers a new chore: cutting down a couple of cedar trees that are interrupting his view of the beautiful Texas Hill county.
Pasco has no idea what challenges he’ll face tomorrow or what kind of impact he’ll leave for future generations. But one thing is certain -- Pasco will continue his journey with nature during his Sunday morning walks.
"There’s so much beauty in what nature presents to you," he said, after reflecting on the miracle of life that has blessed him. "A tree grows the way it grows to get what it needs. Its imperfection is perfection."