THE MOST SEVERELY WOUNDED AIRMAN IN HISTORY: TRIPLE AMPUTEE, BRIAN KOLFAGE, JR.

Brian Kolfage

THE MOST SEVERELY WOUNDED AIRMAN IN HISTORY: TRIPLE AMPUTEE, BRIAN KOLFAGE, JR.

Brian Kolfage, an architecture student, was recently interviewed about his experiences while in the Air Force. His interviewed was published on the Warrior SOS blog. Warrior SOS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping military members and their families.

Interview by Jeffrey Denning, Warrior SOS, December 12, 2012

Brian Kolfage is a former Security Forces Airman-turned Architect. On September 11, 2004, on his second deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he lost both legs and an arm after a rocket attack. The 107mm rocket shell exploded about three feet from Airman Kolfage, who was thrown several feet in the air and landed against a wall of sandbags. Still conscious, he began calling for help. Thirty-six hours after being struck by the blast of that mortar, he was airlifted to Walter Reed Medical Center, where his new life would begin.

The fact that no one with his level of amputation had ever been able to walk independently didn’t discourage him. Brian walked out of Walter Reed 11 months after being injured. To this day, he is still the most severely wounded Airman to survive any war.
After leaving the hospital, he continued his service in the Air Force for a time and was assigned to Davis Monthan AFB (Tucson, Arizona) 355 Security Forces Squadron as the Base Security Manager. Brian kolfage further gave service to the community by proudly accepting a position on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ Veterans Advisory Committee where he provided crucial, inside information to help the Congresswoman make vital decisions which helped veterans nationally. Additionally, he was invited by the Congresswoman to be her special guest at the 2012 Presidential State of the Union Address when she resigned.
Today, at the time of this interview, Brian is in his fourth year at the University of Arizona’s School of Architecture, where he has risen among the ranks to the top of his class with an overall 3.8 GPA. He never let the daunting tasks of drawing without his dominant right hand affect his ability to perform. With persistence and determination, he has beat all the odds stacked against him and recently was awarded one of the most prestigious military scholarship’s, the Pat Tillman Scholar Award.
Brian continues to embrace a positive attitude as he makes great strides, both literally and figuratively, in learning how to walk with his prosthetics. He and his wife continues to make trips back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit with newly wounded vets. His insight and ability to connect with the veterans gives them new hope for their future.

Do you remember any details when you were injured?
I do. I was fully conscious after my friends rolled me over on my back. I remember every detail like it was yesterday. I wasn’t in any pain at first. I remember being pissed because I knew what happened, and how it happened. I looked at my hand and it was hanging by skin like it had been chewed off. My hand was folded backwards and hanging. I tried looking at my legs but my friend Sr. Airman Cortez put his hand over my eyes so I wouldn’t see. I told him to just get me home.

What was the hardest thing you encountered when you were in the hospital?
The hardest thing I encountered was literally dealing with having to learn how to re-live my life. I had one hand and no legs, everything was different. Putting clothes on, brushing my teeth, shaving left handed, zippers, buttons, unscrewing lids, caps, tying and untying knots, etc, all the little basic things we take for granted became a huge task for me and there’s hundreds more too.
Dealing with the fact that my legs were gone really wasn’t as tough as you would think, though it sucked for a few days, for sure. I was an athlete and always depended on my legs. My legs and extreme health at the time is ultimately what allowed my body to stay alive in those crucial moments after I was injured.

How did you overcome the set back and the loss of your three limbs?

Brian Kolfage at Purple Heart Ceremony

I had to be very patient and just try to think outside of the box when doing my daily grind. I became very creative and it took months to be able to just function normal again.

One moment really stuck out to me being able to move past losing my legs and that was seeing another wounded guy with all his limbs, but he didn’t know the people around him were his family. He had no clue, and he looked 100 percent normal. I also saw other guys missing half of their heads! It was crazy to see how medical technology kept people alive who in any other war would be dead. After seeing this stuff I realized I still had the most important thing: my head, my brain. I could care less about my legs from that point on and I never looked back.

How has life been since leaving the hospital?

Brian Kolfage at Walter Reed

It’s been great. The first two years after being out were still a learning experience for me. Being thrusted into society after such a horrific incident was eye-opening, especially how some people react to me. However, 99 percent of people are genuine and compassionate. A lot of people attempt to give me pity, say they are so so sorry, and even cry. I feel like telling them, “listen my life is probably better than yours, so relax a bit.” But I know everyone deals with it differently.

Kids are great; instantly I’m robo-cop or a robot. Some kids will just stare in awe so I rotate my prosthetic hand 360 degrees and it freaks them out. They usually run and hide behind their mom. I have fun with it.
Do you feel the VA and the Air Force have taken care of you well?
They have and with no major complaints. The medical staff for the VA are amazing. The ratings and evaluation people are evil, but it’s their job.
The Air Force has been there for anything I need as well. They have a great program that they stood up right after I was injured to deal with patients like me. Even the leadership at the top communicates with me and has stayed in touch on a personal level. They have become family to me. I’m sure it affected everyone involved, so they probably have that connection with me because it was tragic for them as well.
Do you have any key information you’ve learned that could help others?
There’s one thing I learned and I share it with everyone; it’s to document everything or have medical documentation about any issues you obtained while in the military. It doesn’t matter how small, do it. Even if you plan on doing a short enlistment, it still matters. To get free college tuition, a computer, free books, free everything related to school, all you need is a 15 percent disability rating to qualify for the VA’s Voc Rehab program. If you want to be a brain surgeon, they’ll foot bill for everything.
I’ve told this to people and they got their 15 percent disability for back issues and are now going to school for free, plus they pay you $800 month if you go full time. So not only do they pay for school, they pay you to go. This is the program I’m using right now to pay for my five year Architecture degree, and I’m planning to attend Harvard grad school which they will be paying for as well.
I know another vet like myself who is going to Harvard law and the VA is stuck with the bill. It’s a great program. One more thing: never accept the first rating they give you. DENY, DENY, DENY till you get what you deserve. They NEVER give you what you deserve the first or maybe even the second time. I denied mine twice and received a 30 percent raise in benefits.
Okay, now for the crucial question. What happened?
I was deployed attached to the Army to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. They needed 13 volunteers to forward deploy to Balad/LSA Anaconda to run the Customs Enforcement for the entire region of Iraq. I desperately wanted to go instead of hanging out in Kuwait getting fat at pizza hut. Out of 350 others my chances were slim.
My friend was selected, but I wasn’t.
I told one of the newer guys who was from my home base that if he went, he was going to get hit by a rocket and lose his legs (in a joking manner). Nevertheless, he just had a child and didn’t want to go. Everyone knew I wanted to go so I took his spot, and we left the next day.

Brian Kolfage and President Bush

About two weeks later, on September 11, 2004, I awoke about 12:45pm (about 15 minutes earlier than normal) so I decided to grab a cold water from the moral tent. As I walked out of my tent I asked my buddy if he wanted to go, but he didn’t. I stepped out of my tent and walked about 20 feet. I was in the middle of the intersection of tents when I heard a turbine noise for a millisecond, and I was out.
My friends came out of the tent to see if anyone was hit and that’s when they found me lying face down on the ground with my feet pointing up. They rolled me over and that’s when I became fully conscious. I recall every detail.
My right hand was severed at the wrist and hanging backwards with all the skin peeled back. I tried to look at my legs but my good friend Cortez put his hand over my eyes so I wouldn’t see. At that point I knew it was bad, but I didn’t feel any pain.
I was dying of thirst. I told my friend Higgs to get me water. (I learned right before you hemorrhage to death you get very thirsty.) Medics actually stopped me from drinking. My friends Cortez and Higgs were rushing to stop the bleeding from my femoral arteries, as well as many others who came to help. They were applying towels to the massive areas where my thighs once were. They were completely gone, just mangled mush. The medics arrived and put me into a litter, then pain kicked in and it was like my body was lit on fire.
I arrived at the Balad Combat Support Hospital (CSH) five minutes after I was hit. They rolled me into the door and I saw the nurses and doctors looking at me in awe, and just like that I was out. I found out later a 107mm mortar landed three feet away from me. I was so close that the blast projection liquified my thighs and luckily took the blast completely saving my man parts. As you read this it sounds calm, but nothing was calm about this. Two or three more rockets impacted around us. The air was smokey, and chaos was everywhere; it was a horrific scene to see first hand.
You said that you remember everything perfectly. Do you dream about it? Flashbacks?
I don’t dream about it or have any flashbacks. It’s never really bothered me.
Really? I mean, it seems surreal and, well, unbelievable to think you have not been affected, ever—even in the slightest way. Not even a hint of sadness, grief or hard days? Regret for volunteering to go from Kuwait into Balad? Bitterness, anger or discomfort at loud noises, crowds? Hyper-vigilance? Do you or have you had any of the emotional feelings or residual effects so many combat veterans have—any at all?
It’s definitely affected me. I just don’t get bummed about it. At first I when I would think about not being able to play hockey or surf anymore it would piss me off for a few minutes each time. But anyone who knew me before knows I’m very laid back and hate to be in bad moods. I knew there was nothing I could do to get them back, so it wasn’t worth being upset.
On my deployments I never saw direct combat besides seeing a mortar land next to me. My 13-man fire team was the first unit on the ground inside Iraq during the invasion. We saw no combat while we ran convoys. IED’s were not being used then either. It was fun . . . to be frank.

My second deployment was in 2004. I wasn’t there but two weeks. My logical thinking for why I am so relaxed about it mentally is because I never experienced the stressors that most people have. Loud noises, crowds . . . Love it! ’Went to the super bowl in 2008, NHL and MLB games.
For the initial phase of my recovery I was so doped up for months, that I didn’t care about my legs really. I was feeling good. It sounds crazy but true.
I’m not a regretful person. I know things happen for a reason, so I could never be mad at myself for volunteering.
I had a strong support system with family, friends, and all the doctors at Walter Reed. I was very happy-go-lucky at Walter Reed and was constantly goofing off and clowning on guys who only lost a leg. It was my personality, and it never changed. As I realized how lucky I was to be alive, have my head working and man parts, I really began living my life again. I embraced my new life, the new me, and learned so much while in that hospital.
Being around guys who were mentally disabled for life because of a fragment of metal in their head really opened my eyes! I would see these guys who were my age at the time (21-ish) and they had to drink every meal through a straw. I saw guys who had half their heads missing, and others with no faces. What normal person could be engulfed in this everyday for a year and not be thankful for what they had? I saw so much grief and so much horrific stuff that people never see it literally kicked me in the ass, and set me on course to who I am today.
I’ve seen pictures of my injuries from head to toe minutes after I was hit, and I’m still awake in the pics. When I look at them it reminds me how lucky I am to be here. If you saw them you would wouldn’t believe I had lived. People never live with these injuries. I was just lucky enough to be injured one minute away from the regional hospital in Iraq.
On September 11, 2004, one thing didn’t go my way that day. But a million other things did. My life is great. I have a beautiful wife, family, dogs, bought a house on my own, finish my degree in architecture next year, what couldn’t be good about this?
The human mind is an amazing thing that’s developed over millions of years. We are hard wired to deal with trauma. Just as DNA decides who we are, some of us are just lucky to have DNA that allows us to deal with trauma better.
Before my injuries I was a little arrogant, and cocky sometimes. If you would have told me I was going to lose my legs and hand the next day I would have told you that I’d rather be dead, and swore by it! But once it happened my body went into survival mode, and I had no control. My entire way of thinking changed instantly, and I didn’t care. In fact, when I was laying on the ground bleeding to death I told my friend Cortez that “I knew my legs are gone. I don’t care. Just get me home. . . .”
In addition, my way of thinking has been further affected by two other incidents. One year after I was injured a friend from my unit was killed in Iraq by an EFP (Explosively Formed Projectile), then years later I was on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ Veteran Advisory Committee when she was shot in the head. I’ve seen how fragile life is and know how fast it can yanked away.
I’m sorry to hear about the death of your friend. The whole nation was shocked when Congresswoman Giffords’ was shot, but since you knew her that affected you much more profoundly, no doubt. These are horrible tragedies. You do have a gift of resilience. What a blessing! You said that the military has treated you well and you have friends that are like family. What about other family members? How did they respond to you, and how did they help?
All my family was pretty shocked, as you could imagine. The Air Force sent chaplains, the whole nine yards. They were preparing for my death, and none of the docs were too optimistic.
The very first time I began speaking—but I don’t remember any of it—I was telling my dad and the medical staff about plans of college when I was still in the ICU and only days out from the incident. I think they saw that I had a strong mind, and as I slowly came to, I was still me. It made it easier on everyone to deal with it. I was very self-motivated and involved in what was going on with my medical care too. Once they realized I would be able to take care of myself on my own they pretty much went back to normal, which was about a month after I was injured.
I have another question: what advice would you give to veterans who suffer from depression or PTSD?
I’ve never personally been affected by either; however, I’ve met many people who’ve suffered from both and it seems like the key to it is getting out and being active. The Wounded Warrior Project has helped many people I know by allowing any veteran to go on free trips, which get veterans out being active. I’m talking about trips to Alaska to fish, Colorado to hunt, or Florida for water sports. They allow veterans who have similar struggles to come together in a nonclinical environment to share their struggles with each other and bond.
I’m not a professional in this matter, however I’ve seen many life’s changes from this program and would suggest that anyone who feels they need a boost to their morale to give the WWP a call or email, and they’ll have your back as they did for me and my other issues.
Do you believe in God? Why or why not? How has your belief helped in your recovery and your future?
I do believe in God. I guess you can say I’m a non practicing catholic, or least that’s what I was raised in. It really never factored into my recovery one bit.
Being highly competitive in sports my whole life and always trying my best has been one of the drivers that kicked in automatically when I woke up in the hospital. I felt like someone had just one-upped me, that being an insurgent, and I wasn’t going to let them determine how I lived my life. I was going to conquer what they did to me and be even better than I was. That was my mentality.
Brian, I’m amazed at what you’ve accomplished. You’re an inspiration to me and many others. You have an amazing optimism and a great outlook on life. Keep up the great work and, please, give our love and appreciation to all the wounded warriors you continue to meet and associate with.

Brian Kolfage is a former Security Forces Airman-turned Architect. On September 11, 2004, on his second deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he lost both legs and an arm after a rocket attack. The 107mm rocket shell exploded about three feet from Airman Kolfage, who was thrown several feet in the air and landed against a wall of sandbags. Still conscious, he began calling for help. Thirty-six hours after being struck by the blast of that mortar, he was airlifted to Walter Reed Medical Center, where his new life would begin.

Brian, I’m amazed at what you’ve accomplished. You’re an inspiration to me and many others. You have an amazing optimism and a great outlook on life. Keep up the great work and, please, give our love and appreciation to all the wounded warriors you continue to meet and associate with. 

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