Seth Pardue grew up yearning to be a soldier and still bears scars from make-believe skirmishes on his family's 5-acre spread on Centralia Road, northwest of Brooksville.
Despite attempts by his father, a former Green Beret, to dissuade him, Pardue did become a soldier and deployed to Afghanistan in December. Now his family members and fiancee are bracing for the moment they see him lying in a Texas hospital, burned and battered.
"He's just thanking God because he's in good shape and there are other guys who are a lot worse," Seth's father, Dave Pardue, who is pastor at Christian Church in the Wildwood near Weeki Wachee, said Thursday.
Army officials were not able to provide the Times with details about what happened to Pardue, a specialist, and his team in Afghanistan on Tuesday, but his family and fiancee have been able to piece together the story.
Pardue, 22, was on routine patrol near the border with Pakistan when an improvised explosive device detonated under the armored truck he was traveling in with at least four other members of the 501st Airborne Infantry Regiment, his father said. The gas tank exploded, and flames shot up through the vehicle. One soldier inside was killed instantly. Seth, gunner and team leader, was standing in the gun turret.
Dave Pardue was traveling home from church Tuesday evening when his cellphone rang. The Army sergeant on the other end of line told him he had information about his son, and Pardue pulled over, fearing the worst.
Seth had been seriously injured, the sergeant said. Medics had intubated him because they suspected his lungs had been damaged. The sergeant wasn't able to provide much more than that.
The family would later learn that Seth suffered burns on his face and the right side of his body. The force of the impact dislocated his shoulder. At least three other soldiers were also seriously injured.
Dave and Jan Pardue first talked with their son on Wednesday. Lying in intensive care in Germany and sounding drugged, he didn't want to talk much about the incident, but he knew that before a helicopter lifted him away from the scene, one of his men had been killed, his father said.
"He chokes up when he remembers it," Dave Pardue said.
The Pardues received word Thursday that Seth and two of his injured team members will arrive in the next few days at the burn unit at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
Just like he did when he got hurt playing as a boy, Seth tried to minimize his injuries, so his parents and fiancee, 19-year-old Megan Rosas of Spring Hill, won't know the full extent until they see him.
"I'm going to be just fine," he told his father. "Just prepare Mom and Megan because it looks worse than it is."
Just a few months into his first tour of duty, Pardue is already talking about going back to his unit.
"I was just on the phone with him trying to make him realize he's got months of rehab ahead and probably will miss this deployment," Dave Pardue said.
Seth was born in Madison, Wis., and raised in Hernando County, the sixth of seven siblings. He was homeschooled and enlisted in the Army at age 19. He wanted to be an Army Ranger or a Green Beret like his dad.
He did basic training and jump school at Fort Benning in Georgia. He was guaranteed a spot with the Rangers or Special Forces, but after months of waiting to be called for training, he decided last year to join a regular unit. He was assigned to the 501st, based at Fort Richardson, outside of Anchorage, Alaska.
Seth's unit arrived in Afghanistan in December. He drew a short straw and had to take leave in February. He couldn't wait to get back because he'd heard that members of his team had been hit by an IED. Some were injured, but no one was killed.
Dave Pardue understands the pull of a close-knit unit. He served on 16-man A-Team in Vietnam.
"You put your back to a guy and count on him for life," he said. "It's a different kind of camaraderie."
Pardue has been pastor at Wildwood since 1980. Back then, the church had about 20 members and could barely afford to pay a pastor. Last Sunday, about 1,100 people showed up to two services, and members of the congregation recently opened Harvest Christian Church in Spring Hill.
Seth grew up in the church, and the outpouring of support from the congregation has been overwhelming, the Pardues said.
Seth gave Rosas a promise ring in November, and she's planning a December wedding, though it's unclear whether that might have to be pushed back. For now, she just wants to put her arms around him and, eventually, talk about what happened.
"I know when he's ready, he'll open up, but nobody's going to push him," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.