Editor's note: This Memorial Day, as many remember those who died in war, take a look at one airman's story, one of the many war wounded.
By Tom Goldstone, executive producer of 'Fareed Zakaria GPS'
If you look at the photo above, you would be forgiven if you thought it shows some new form of affection between man and machine (or woman and machine, as the case may be).
You see a shapely pair of tanned female legs, that part is clear. But what is this metal and carbon fiber thing holding hands with the woman? Is it a robot, a machine? Look closely: there, resting tenderly on her left thigh is a sign of humanity, a human hand. That hand belongs to Brian Kolfage – a human being, for sure, and a rather incredible one, at that.
By all rights, Brian Kolfage should have died on September 11, 2004, and instead of celebrating him, we should more likely be solemnly remembering Brian Kolfage this and every Memorial Day. September 11 has become a key date in Brian’s life. No, he’s not one of the myriad military men and women who enlisted right after 9/11. Brian enlisted before the attacks, and September 11, 2001, was his first day at his first posting in the Air Force – at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas.
The impetus to enlist came to Brian on the beaches of Hawaii. Since moving to the Aloha State from his hometown of Detroit as a teen, Brian admits he had become a beach bum.
He had tried a bit of college, but that didn’t work out. And although he loved surfing, Brian knew there was more to life ... and he knew he needed to get his life on track.
His answer was the military. But with that beach bum spirit shining through, Brian was looking for the easiest military experience he could find. He decided that lay with the Air Force. He had no aspirations to be a fighter pilot, he was just looking for a good military “job.” He thought he’d found it at Goodfellow, working in “security forces” – the law enforcement of the Air Force – protecting the branch’s assets.
After 9/11, of course, came the invasion of Afghanistan, then “shock and awe.” Brian was in the first Air Force team – a team of just 13 airmen – on the ground in Iraq. They were part of a mission to open an air base and refueling station in Nasiriya, so that American jets didn’t have to go all the way back to Kuwait to re-fuel. Not the cakewalk he expected, for sure.
Brian says his next deployment – in September 2004 to Kuwait – was supposed to be relaxed, but he wasn’t looking for relaxed any more. He had caught a bit of the war bug in Nasiriya: he wanted to see more action. Shortly after his unit arrived in Kuwait, a call went up for volunteers to go to Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad. Brian raised his hand, but wasn’t chosen.
So Brian found one of the newer airmen who did get picked and tried to scare him, telling him that if he went to Iraq he would get blown up and lose his legs. The eerily prescient scare tactics seemed to work. The recent recruit was soon off the list of personnel bound for Balad, and Brian was on it.
And it was there at Balad that Brian found himself working the night shift in the early hours of September 11, 2004. He and his colleagues were assigned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, doing customs enforcement work. Their mission was to make sure nobody was taking any ancient Iraqi artifacts, any of Saddam Hussein’s gold-plated AK47’s, or any other illegal Iraqi contraband out of the country.
Some U.S. Marines were flying out of Balad that night and when Brian was checking their luggage, one of them told him to watch out: there were rumors of a planned attack on Balad for that very night.
Attacks on Balad were practically every day occurrences, Brian says, so he thought little of it. When he got off work at 6 a.m., he and his bunkmate and best buddy Valentine Cortez made a plan to get up at 2 p.m. to go work out.
But Brian woke up a little earlier – at about 1 p.m. He was thirsty in the scorching desert air, and needed some water.
Throwing on some clothes, Brian walked out of his tent, took a left turn, walked about 20 feet and suddenly heard a deafening sound of a turbine engine ... and then a huge explosion.
When he came to, he was on the ground. Everything was smoky. He had sand in his mouth and he heard another deafening sound. It was a woman screaming – and not just any scream. Brian says she was screaming “like somebody had been murdered.” That “somebody” she was screaming about was Brian.
A mortar shell had landed just feet away from him.
His first thought was that he was dreaming. Brian was taking malaria pills that were causing him to have wild hallucinogenic dreams. This must be just another one of those, he thought. It wasn’t.
Brian was horrifically wounded. He says when his friends raced out to help him, they found him face down on the ground, but with his feet pointing toward the sky.
Despite it all, he says he felt no pain. In fact, he didn’t feel much of anything at that moment. And the only real injury he himself could see was that his right hand seemed to be barely attached to his body.
Brian’s friends and fellow airmen sprang into action. Brian tried to sit up to see what had happened to his legs, but a friend shielded his eyes so he couldn’t witness the bodily devastation. Another friend, Brian says, was busy stuffing towels in the holes in his legs – to try to stanch the bleeding.
Brian had a lot of bad luck that day. The one stroke of good luck was that his tent was right near by the base hospital – the main military trauma center for the entire area.
When the ambulance arrived and he was loaded onto the stretcher, the pain set in. Brian says it was the most intense thing he can imagine anyone ever feeling.
His friends later told him that to move him to the stretcher, they all had to hold on to different body parts – for fear of them falling off.
The last thing Brian Kolfage remembers of his time in Iraq was looking up in that trauma center and seeing the looks on the doctors’ faces. Their expressions told him all he needed to know: they “looked like they were scared shitless," he remembers.
Two weeks later, he woke up at Walter Reed's Ward 57. That's where the amputees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were sent.
He was groggy and couldn’t open his eyes. But he heard the voices of his friends and family in room. That’s all he needed, he says: he was happy to be alive.
Brian says his military doctors told him he is the most seriously injured airman ever to survive his wounds. He had lost both legs and his right hand, but – again – he was alive.
During his recovery, Brian was shown pictures of what he looked like after the mortar attack. He says, “If you saw those pictures, you would say ‘There’s no way that guy lived.’ Everything looked like it went through a meat grinder.”
The only thing Brian says he was “pissed” about was that he wouldn’t be an athlete again. He had been a hockey player back in Michigan. In fact, prior to the attack, he had a hockey scholarship lined up for when he was done with the military. And that beach bum life? It is over. At least, in his estimation, the surfing part is.
With none of his old lives to fall back on, he needed a new one. And whatever this next incarnation was, it needed to be something that he didn’t need either legs or his dominant hand for. That certainly limited Brian’s options. He had always wanted to work for the FBI, but says he knew that wasn’t possible anymore.
Friends and family encouraged Brian to go back to school. After all, it was free under the GI Bill. But school and Brian had never gotten along so well. Brian had an architect friend who encouraged him to come see what he did for a living. Brian took him up on the offer and liked what he saw.
Brian enrolled at the architecture program at the University of Arizona at Tucson. There, he says, 400 students try out for the program the first year and that number gets brutally whittled down to 50 students for the next four years of a five-year degree.
Brian had survived brutal before, that’s for sure. But he was missing his right hand, his dominant hand. He was up against much younger students who did have their dominant hands.
Brian says he could barely even write with his left hand, let alone draw. So he thought his chances of making it to the second year were slim.
Putting in 12 to 15 hour days working on assignments, his left hand grew stronger. Not only did he end up making the cut, he says, he was in the top 5 in his class.
Brian, the man who once couldn’t hack college, now hopes to go on to get an advanced degree. He says he wants to do so in the Ivy League.
Amazingly, Brian says he has no regrets. “I wouldn’t say I’m glad I got injured,” he says, “but it made me the different person I am today.”
Brian today is a different person – in body, for certain, but also in mind. He says that he believes that everything he went through “was a big life lesson that no matter how grim something might be, you can make something positive out of it.”
In his little spare time at school, he reconnected on Facebook with a woman he remembered from his days at Goodfellow AFB, back in Texas. Ashley Goetz was a waitress at Chili’s and they ran in concentric circles of friends. He says although he never dated Ashley, he used to tell his friends that someday he would marry her. When they reconnected, Brian says, “she accepted me for who I am today.” Brian and Ashley began a long-distance relationship.
Brian harkens back to an incident at Walter Reed – just about six weeks after the attack. He says he had been given a power wheelchair and started taking it on excursions around the ward. One day he stopped in front of the open door of a patient’s room. Inside he saw a doctor asking the patient who the other people were in his room. The patient had no idea. The people, it turned out, were the patient’s friends and family.
Brian says that nowhere in his whole experience has he ever felt sorry for himself – not for a minute. But watching that hospital scene “put everything in perspective.” “I had my brain, my head,” he says, and now Ashley has his heart.
Brian, in his Air Force dress blues, married Ashley, in a classic white wedding dress, on Memorial Day weekend in 2011.
Brian's steely determination to make the best out of his life is admirable and his story should be filmed!
I couldn't agree more . . What a true inspiration . . and what a Beautiful Bride both inside and out!
I can't quite get over just how far the right-wing news media will go to glorify these obnoxious wars overseas! This is getting ridiculous.
No kidding, I feel bad for the wounded rubes, but the GOP doesn't care, the dumbest people in the country are in the military.
Well put, Ja-koffalotte. Thank you.
Why are they dumb? What's wrong with serving their country, did you ever? It's a great job for many, an honorable career, specific skills and higher education,travel the world, learn team work, hard work, dedication to a task. The military is the most equal opportunity employer we have in this country. These boys learn a lot, leadership, maturity, duty, honor, camaraderie. Something you obviously know nothing about.
You may (or may not) remember when American troops rescued a group of American medical students in Grenada back during President Reagan's administration. I never will forget watching one of those rescued students as he got off of the plane after returning to the States.
He got down on his hands and knees, and kissed the tarmac. Nothing unusual about that, however. What was (in my opinion) very shocking is that he said that he had been anti-military all of his life, but thanked God for those troops who rescued him! I bet that he would not stated how "dumb" they were when they rescued HIS a**!
I was drafted in December 1968; I was a senior at the University of ***********. I spent 4 years on active duty, and was honorably discharged as a Staff Sargent on 12-7-1972; I met some of the brightest guys around.
Since I was discharged almost 40 years ago, I have NEVER. . . . .NEVER......met a group of men who were more serious, dedicated, and professional than the B52 aircrews of the 379th Bomb Wing, Strategic Air Command, USAF.
Those "dumb" people are the very people who are allowing you to make such comments!
I'm in the military. I guarantee you that I'm more intelligent and better educated than you. Thank you for your service as a worthless monday morning quarterback and internet tough guy.
"the dumbest people in the country are in the military." Really? I would disagree. The people I work with are among the most highly educated people I know. The vast majority of young officers I know have their masters degrees with some of them working on their PhDs. The majority of enlisted personnel I work with have completed an associate or undergraduate degree.
What you don't understand is that people can be motivated to sacrifice, serve, and live magnanimously. These people think beyond their own desires and live to improve the lives of others.
I will leave you with a couple of "dead guy" quotes to contemplate:
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"
"What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others"
Your an idiot, we wouldn't enjoy the freedoms we have today if it wasn't for our military and the "idiots" [Heroes] that serve. You deserve a punch in the face for your comments. As a vet i am highly offended im far from an idiot, while i do think the wars in the middle east are the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reason, it doesn't make the men and women who enlist and serve with honor idiots. someone who has far more courage then you yourself CLEARLY DO certainly are not idiots. Leave your sentiment and opinion off the internet and move to Mexico if you think our armed forces are idiots. You make me sick.
The government would rather see troops dead then wounded, what's cheaper in the long run, a soldier that survives, but requires expensive prosthetic limbs, treatment, a lifetime of compensation, or a funeral service? If the answer above holds true, then are those who join the military making an intelligent decision?
Ja-koffalotte, if you an Patrick-2 are Americans you are both unfit to enjoy our freedom. I agree that our politicians, especially the right-wing Republicans, tend to choose war without any realization of the sacrifice of our Servicemembers. But for citizens to ridicule our Servicemembers... you do not deserve to live in our country. Sniveling cowards.
Clem Kadiddlehopper – bad example. We didn't rescue anybody in Grenada. Most of those spoiled students were tanning on the beach without a clue. We were using that scam to prevent construction of an airfield that may have had strategic implications. I helped shuttle women to the island so they could get combat patches for serving in a "war zone". Don't defend our Servicemembers with these examples. We are often pawns in the big game but we do our job regardless of the quality of our leadership.
I am in the military and I am not dumb. My wife has a Masters degree and she is not dumb. My friends and family that serve are not dumb either. Whats dumb is when people that have no clue what they are talking about or have never even served 1 day in a pair of boots assume that military people are dumb. Instead of commenting how dumb military people are maybe you should be thankful that you and your family get to sleep easy tonight knowing that the military has your back, now, in the past and in the future.
Funny, I've been in for almost 10 years. I speak five languages and short of a disaster on my dissertation defense will have a JD and a PhD in Islamic Studies next year. Guess I'm just an uneducated rube though, or an exception to the rule. The fact that 90% of my company has a BA, and close to 60% posses or are in the process of obtaining graduate degrees blows that assertion out of the water as well. I will grant you one thing, there are some morons in the military, but there are morons in all walks of life. You illustrate that fact quite well.
they're dumb? but you are all knowing while you occupy somewhere demanding handouts!
Just when are these morons here going to learn that neither one of these useless wars that we're fighting today have anything to do with any of our rights or freedoms? Its about the right-wing politicians who want to keep on getting reelected into office and the war profiteers who want to make more money!
Sounds like Jagoff couldn't get a passing score on the ASVAB and is still bitter about it.
You are an @$$. An ignorant @$$.
You are the lowest of the low. Cowards and dishonorable. How can you turn this story into your own political commentary and disrespect the brave.. Shame on you !!
Patrick-2 is AKA George Patton, Roe, j.Foster Dulles, Joseph McCarthy, Marine5484, Yacobi, Warren, Quigley, Willie12345, Vin and texas-based.
We have followed this guy for a few months.
He is not American but an islamist who is on 24/7 bashing anything American.
Add Travis to that previous lists of names.
Check this site with your bbs, androids and you will see the same colour for this islamist.
I spent 36 years in the military, what have you done to contribute to society other than what your screen name says? You, are a mo-ro-n and a cow-ard.
What internet tough-guys you all are!
Liberalism . . You have to work really hard to be that stupid! And another thing . . it's because of the so called "dumbest people in the country" that you have this "Freedom" of Speech . . No matter how Stupid it is! Go live in a Socialist country and say these things . . . PLEASE!!!
Screw off moron
They are ridiculous to you because you're a coward...what have you done to contribute to this country?
Brian you have gone through so much.
Thank you for all you have given to your country.
We wish you and your lovely wife a wonderful life.
You deserve it!
This just proves just how tragic war can be, Patrick. Wars like this must be avoided at all costs.
What's "tragic" here is that Patrick-2's mom couldn't find a better use for a coat-hanger.
I don't get who causes wars a lot? Why can't people be peaceful?
Just ask the right-wing politicians in Washington. They only want to promote themselves no matter how many people get hurt along the way and therefore that's why we're constantly at war! That's what disgusts me most of all!
If my wife were that hot, I'd do whatever it took to survive, too..
haha, good one. I admit I did notice those nice pair of legs, too.
Brian, you look happy. and I'm happy for you.
I was the Wing Command Chief at Goodfellow when Brian was assigned there. I remember Brain as not only a true Airman, but a wonderful and caring person. This article about Brian was very heart warming and definitely brought tears to my eyes. To Brian, the late SrA Elizabeth Jacobson, and all the rest of the 17th SFS...thank you for all you have done to make our world a better and safer place. This retired Chief Master Sergeant and your old Wing Command Chief is damn proud of you!
What a Beautiful, Heart felt tribute Sir! Thank you for sharing . . And Thank You all for serving and protecting OUR FREEDOMS and Keeping Us Safe!
Having served 20 years myself. I must sat Chief , despite his horrific wounds his Facebook web site is filled with a lot of vitriolic hate and bigotry . This wounded vet. Wraps himself in Hero garb, then pumps out right wing political opinions most of which are based in NO FACTUAL information. See for yourself. Read the comments he and his supporters write. Words mean things. He is endorsing bigotry , fear and hate speech. He personally bullied and threatened me and my family, wanting a gang of bikers to come and beat my ass. Hmmm now that's a respectful warrior. You can't wrap yourself in a hero worship world and then say the things he does. He needs to do it as a civilian, not a SRA. he runs his site like a dictator , which he so worries about , and those who disagree are usually demonized and then blocked from commenting further. He then back tracks and cleans up the dissenting comments to cover up his hate and ill will towards others who want to speak freely on his topics. What a shameful representative to act like a hero and post pictures of our CINC with ugly no fact based , backhanded racism cloaked evil. V/R. TSgt retired USAF. M. D.
Best of luck Brian, Thank you for your service!
These guys knew the odds before they went over there. Let's put the blame on what happened to Brian where it belongs. First, the right-wing politicians like Bush and Obama who want to promote their careers and then, the big corporations who want to make a profit out of these useless wars! This is not right.
Thank you, Marine5484. Well said.
I did not make that comment.
The right wing of this country says that they cant wait to become the majority so that they can attack Iran. Just listen to john mccain and others on the right. If they become the majority I hope the draft comes back so their rich sons, including romneys five sons can go fight. I see all of these wounded worriors from the unnessary iraq war and it makes me sick. Folks seem to forget that american was lied to by the bush administration to go to war against iraq.
Well put, Donald. I totally agree. Maybe if we had the draft again, these obscene wars just may become far less popular than they are right now. Only a fool would believe in these stupid wars that we'ew currently engaged in!
Donald..this story had nothing to do with politics.Your trying to stick politics in it?? Really.. It is about telling & honoring a vet's story of courage and determination. Please take a moment to thank him and perhaps honor the many that served as he did.
Shut the eff up with the politics. this is about an Airman who is ten times stronger than you will ever be.
Brian is an amazing person who has made an amazing recovery, but why the heavy focus in the beginning of the article on his new wife, Ashley? The article completely neglects the fact that he had a fiance when he was injured, and married Nikki about two months after his injuries. I do not know what happened between Brian and Nikki, but I hate seeing how the article completely disregards the woman who stood by Brian's side, even for a brief period of time, during a critical stage in his recovery.
scott- who cares about that at this point? This story is not about his failures at choosing the right girl, it's about all the great things he has overcome!!! And that fact that he has gone through a horrible marriage after being blown up only makes him even better to succeed and get back with the woman who he said he would marry when he was younger.
God has intended these two to be together, it's their destiny. So stop trying to ruin a great story with your personal issue with him. I'll just assume you're not who you say your are and have a issue with him. So please don't try to ruin this great thing with your negativity.
Happy memorial day
I care because the article is nothing more than lazy reporting, or worse, blowing sunshine up our backsides. Nikki was a vital part of Brian's life, and there is a reason why she rushed to his bedside at Walter Reed instead of the Applebee's waitress. Every life has chapters in its story, and I am happy if Brian is happy, but you cannot tell me that the chapter of his life with Nikki is not worth mentioning. http://trib.com/news/national/article_3c1bff47-6402-58d9-9f4c-b6b766bef8ec.html
hey Scott your real name must be NIKKI because you sound like a sour jealous person. Do you not see how happy these two are together?! This is a GREAT article about his accomplishments. It seems quite fishy that you are so stuck on such an irrelevant fact. We don't know his personal life and for all you know she(or you Nikki) could have cheated on him. Regardless it's not a big deal, I'm sure Ashley would have done the same, they are in love. He has been dealt two horrible cards and overcame a marriage that shoukdnt have happened and being severely wounded. NO ONE CARES ABOUT HIS PERSONAL LIFE!!! Get a life NIKKI!
You're a silly little man, John, a very silly little man.
And I award you with an internet belt to display your victory for all to see. It is worth less than the characters you type. Congrats!
I'm guessing John is actually Ashley lol
He is a bully and a mean sprit. An embarrassment to those like myself who proudly wore the uniform and defended our country. Myself for 20 yrs. he is a fear based , anger , bitter BOY. sad example. See his Facebook page it's right there to see. Wow. Talk about displaced anger and fear , racism and bigotry. Not to mention he transfers his actions onto others once he's called out on his bigotry and flat out political lies. TRANSFERENCE ...psychology is needed for this weak sad BOY. NO HERO , JUST A BULLY.
Wow, this is truly an inspiration! Good for this guy! I didn't know about his ex-wife Nikki but it doesn't matter. This story is still about a courageous man with the will to live where many would have given up long ago.
Thats what you get when your fighting in a country you dont belong in, weapons off mass destruction my ass!
And he probably still lives a better life than you.
He's certainly 10 times the person "LOL" will ever be.
https:// vimeo dott com/16724719
The bigger story here is that this soldier and thousands like him are even put harms way by a crack pipe inspired foreign policy driven by the sociopaths that occupy the WhiteHouse (past and present).
We're in a permanent state of war which shows no sign of abating. There is no war on terror, it's a giant scam to fund the MIC and let the fat cats get fatter at the expense of the American public.
Thank you, EasyRhino. I couldn't have said it better!
Don't you bush-league marxists ever get tired of sucking each other's azzholes?
Please James OD, just cut the Tea Party expression here. The English language is extensive enough where that kind lingo in not necessary. Leave that for the ignorant Tea Partiers!
Very good article and story. Brian is an successful Architect student doing very well. Brian and Ashley deserve the best that life has to offer. Thank you for your service on this Memorial Day 2012 and thanks to ALL that help keep this country great. Without your service we would NOT be able to enjoy the FREEDOM we have.
you are much bigger than me, sir
well it's a pity sounds like he is not a warcriminal and was not directly abetting warcriminals in operations. if he didn't draw blood on innocents he has my condolences.
You internet tough guys been dewed. Thank you to the best and bravest among us who defend our freedoms, whether by "pen or sword". Warmongers who aggitate to throw our young people into combat unnecessarily need to all gather together to step ahead to absorb enemy fire first themselves...or listen to the steady and reasonable among us.
Our day is made better by reading of these young people finding each other. May you have much goodness in your lives. Our device doesn't show your picture so we think sweet smiles back at you. And peace to the children of all ages on these blogs.
My mother is part of the Zahara family from Canada, that is how I know of you. However I read your story and saw the touching photos of you and your wife @ CNN.com. All I can say is how amazing you are. You are inspiring! God Bless you !
As stated previously on this blog and others, this islamist Patrick-2 is AKA George Patton, Rosie, j.Foster Dulles, Joseph McCarthy, Marine5484, Yacobi, Warren, Quigley, Willie12345 and Vin harasses when he/she is pointed out to be the sc um he/she is.
Please check your bbs, androids and iphone to see that I have not made this statement.
May 28, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Reply
The thing this mo ron does not seem to realize yet is that the more he/she harasses me, the more determined I am to point him/her out to us.
they this is a good one!
though separated by seas
the pain of a soldier is universal.
my heart goes out to Brian and Ashley
I love how all these dating sites have all these scorching chicks into their adverts, plus the actual associates are like a well balanced. Not really a huge pimps steady, often.
Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is magnificent blog. A great read. I will definitely be back.| Recommended Webpage http://sdkfsdklfskdlflsd.com
What an incredible story. It's nuts to think that if he wasn't thirsty he would have ever left his tent. It is like it was meant to happen.
That precise moment happened because he was meant to inspire. This post inspired me. Your a true hero.
I was there that say and remember that attack clearly, as it was my first one. I always think about this airman.
The Global Public Square is where you can make sense of the world every day with insights and explanations from CNN's Fareed Zakaria, leading journalists at CNN, and other international thinkers. Join GPS editor Jason Miks and get informed about global issues, exposed to unique stories, and engaged with diverse and original perspectives.
Every week we bring you in-depth interviews with world leaders, newsmakers and analysts who break down the world's toughest problems.
CNN U.S.: Sundays 10 a.m. & 1 p.m ET | CNN International: Find local times
Buy the GPS mug | Books| Transcripts | Audio
Connect on Facebook | Twitter | GPS@cnn.com
Buy past episodes on iTunes! | Download the audio podcast
Check out all of Fareed's Washington Post columns here:
Obama as a foreign policy president?
Why Snowden should stand trial in U.S.
Hillary Clinton's truly hard choice
China's trapped transition
Obama should rethink Syria strategy
Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.
RSS - Posts
Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.
Join 4,855 other followers