By Gloria Montgomery
Warrior Transition Brigade public affairs
It was an "ah-ha" moment for Sgt. 1st Class Karl Pasco back in the late 1990s when he became a staff sergeant.
The Army, he 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 soldier ponders his next "ah-ha" movement with his 2,500-pound therapist: an Indian-made tractor named Mahindra 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. Pasco is creating his 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 planned small, aiming for a 6-foot-tall wall, but he soon found himself going higher and higher, stretching the limitations of his 28-horsepower front-end loader. He admitted he forgets it is smaller than it actually is, having almost tipped it over several times.
The 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 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.
A shattered right leg, shrapnel in the left arm, 10 broken ribs, three fractured vertebrae, a broken upper jaw and a bruised heart were 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-pound roadside bomb.
"We lost our innocence that day and understood the true cost of war," he said.
He was a cavalry scout with the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment.
"War wasn't laser tag in the woods anymore," he said. "It was real. People got hurt, people died."
Eight months later, Pasco returned to his unit and deployed with it a second time in 2006.
On Nov. 20, 2007, one month before the end of his deployment, he was wounded by another roadside bomb 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 face, the 37-year-old Pasco said 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 says when asked how his day is going. "That's pretty awesome."
Pasco began planning his outdoor shooting range four years ago during his four-month stay at Walter Reed. He was 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. "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 not only motivated him, but helped him focus on something other than the pain. The end result, unlimited access to a firing range, thrilled him because it would provide him with round-the-clock occupational therapy to train his arm to shoot again.
"Never tell a determined and driven noncommissioned officer he can't," he 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," he said.
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 to the Warrior Transition Brigade 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 rifle collection, which now include a Russian Mosin Nagant 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.
Although all Pasco 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.
"I did this, with that little tractor?" he asks.
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."