When her son was young, Kristie Milne always had a house filled with Legos and other blocks for him to play with. As he grew older, Adam Karny outgrew the Legos, but the joy he found in building only became stronger.
When he was 21, Karny decided to take his love for construction to the U.S. Army. He couldn't foresee that pursuing his passion would jeopardize his most important building tools: his hands.
While serving in Iraq in May, Karny, now 24, was refueling a diesel tank, a routine procedure he had done several times before in his military role. But this time, something went wrong. The tank exploded, and Karny was left with second- and third-degree burns on 80 percent of his left hand.
"My skin was just gone," Karny said. "It hurt so much."
A builder first
Before deciding on a military career, Karny had a vision of his dream job, but he just couldn't seem to make it a reality.
"I love to work," he said. "I always wanted to be an engineer, but I couldn't find the job I wanted."
Restlessness and difficulty finding a job led to this decision to join the Army.
His decision to join the military came with little surprise from his friends and family.
"He was bored," Milne said. "And we knew he had a passion for carpentry and masonry."
But the possibility for deployment into dangerous situations naturally put them all on edge.
"It made us all a little nervous," said Milne. "But I want what he wants. The whole family supported his goal, we just hoped and prayed every day that he would be safe."
Drawn to the military
When he first enlisted, Karny joined as a reservist.
After a short time in the reserve doing mostly inventory, he decided to go into active duty. At the time, most of the guys he had trained with were in the same unit at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska. There was a second unit up there as well, but luck, he says, got him a spot in the unit with his friends.
In June 2008, he headed up to Alaska to join the 84th Engineering Battalion, already armed with the knowledge that in November he would be deployed to Iraq.
"I didn't care if we were deploying," Karny said. "I just wanted to go up there."
Applying his talents
Karny's unit was initially deployed to Kuwait in the middle of November. Several weeks later they were assigned to Camp Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq, where Karny, as an Army specialist, finally got to do what he really loves: build.
In Iraq, Karny's battalion was sent on missions for three to five days at a time. He and 20 other guys in his roughly 30-person unit would travel to forward operating bases, used to support tactical operations, and build.
"Anything that needed to be done, we did," he said.
They built living quarters, piped bathrooms, hooked up hot water heaters, and added air-conditioning units and electricity. Surprisingly, he says, there was usually a lot to be done.
"Some people are still living rough," he said.
On May 19, Karny was in the middle of working on his biggest project.
At the time, his unit's mission was to build a 30-by-100-foot structure for living quarters equipped with air conditioning, electricity and 24 small bedrooms. They worked early in the morning and late at night, sleeping during the day when the heat was unbearable.
While they slept, a generator provided power for air conditioning in their living quarters. The generator was invaluable to all the men in his unit, who welcomed the cool air after working for several hot hours a day.
One day in May, while refueling that generator, Adam heard a rumbling, then saw a flash and felt the heat from an explosion.
He flung himself off the generator, splitting his chin open in the process.
"I didn't care where I went, I wanted off that thing," he said. "It was hot."
A process of recovery
Karny was immediately taken to a local hospital for surgery, then sent to Balad Airbase in northern Iraq. That same day he was then flown to the Landstuhl medical center in Ramstein, Germany, for a three-day stay before he returned to the United States.
Once in the U.S., Karny was taken to the Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for treatment.
"It's known as the best burn care unit the military has," he said.
He spent three weeks at the medical center and was then moved to the Warrior Transition Battalion, where he received physical therapy and attended daily doctor appointments until his hand healed enough to go home.
Karny said he was lucky not to need any skin graphs.
Home, but not for long
Karny flew home to Greendale on June 13, in time to celebrate his 24th birthday with friends and family on June 17.
"It's been really good to have him home," Milne said. "He's the same old Adam."
Karny returns to Texas on July 10, where he will find out if his doctors will let him return to Iraq or if he'll be sent to Alaska to await the return of his unit in the fall. He's determined to be redeployed to Iraq so he can finish his one-year mission.
"I want to go back to Iraq, even if it's just for a couple more months," he said. "I want to come back here with (his battalion). I want to be the guy getting off the plane."