May 27th, 2012
07:04 AM ET

Airman loses both legs and hand but finds new life

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.

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Topics: Iraq • Military

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