My first journey into Iraq started with a sandy convoy, four airmen from Texas, and a Humvee named “Linebacker 10.”
It was March 26, 2003. The four guys were from the Air Force’s 17th Security Forces Squadron at Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas: A1C Valentine Cortez, 21; SSgt. Chad Wurm, 28; SrA. Daniel Holmes, 22; and A1C Brian Kolfage, 19.
I was a 28-year-old embedded reporter along for the ride; I had no prior military experience whatsoever. In my multiple trips to Iraq since, none of the experiences or people I’ve met or reported on have made as deep of an impact as those four airmen made on my first ride in. But in 2003, as the weeks wore on, I was called back to Washington, to my “real” job covering Congress. The guys stayed deployed.
Our lives would not intersect again until a year later, when Wurm reached out: “Have you heard about Kolfage?”
Sept. 11, 2004: A streak of dust and sunlight pushed Kolfage awake. He blinked to relieve dry eyes and with a squint and a grunt Kolfage stretched out of his Air Force tent bunk at Balad Air Base, Iraq. Time to hit the gym.
It was shortly after 2 p.m.
Kolfage didn’t have to be there. He and Cortez were both on a second deployment. They had been assigned to Kuwait-based duty, but then Cortez’s name was picked in a lottery to send additional Air Force security forces forward to protect Balad’s flight line.
There was no way Kolfage would let Cortez go back to Iraq without him. He looked for someone he could scare into switching, to convince that Iraq was too dangerous, so that he could take his spot and be with Cortez. He found a new kid, a soon-to-be dad. Kolfage growled: You might lose your legs. He scared the guy into staying back, and Kolfage got his place next to Cortez.
Cortez and Kolfage were only on their first weeks at Balad, but they already had a system. Night shift. Sleep. Gym. Eat. Repeat.
“We did everything together,” Cortez said.
On this day, Kolfage awoke first. He put on his shorts and a T-shirt and shuffled out of the tent that he, Cortez, and a handful of other men shared outside of Balad’s flight line. Cortez was slower to rise. As Kolfage opened the tent flap, he asked Cortez if he wanted bottled water, and got only a muffled, yawning reply. Then he stepped out into the sunlight and turned left in the sand toward the gym tent.
There was no “duck and cover,” no “giant voice”—those sirens installed all over Iraq and Afghanistan in the following years that gave troops a four- to eight-second head start to run for a bunker and escape incoming fire.
This was 2004, and Balad wasn’t expecting the 107 mm rocket shell that exploded five feet from Linebacker 10’s baby-faced airman.
The blast flattened Kolfage to the sand. His eyes were stuck open but he only saw darkness as his body and hair disappeared into a cloud of sand and smoke. Each of his senses knocked to black.
“I’m dreaming,” Kolfage thought, “those malaria pills give crazy, crazy dreams.”
Then his senses raced back, screaming, “You’ve been hit.”
Hearing returned first. Kolfage shuddered at the wail of a base siren. He heard a soldier who’d been not 10 feet away start to shriek.
“Oh shit ... wasn’t I just walking?”
Next came taste. Kolfage sensed sandy wet grit in his mouth. Then he smelled smoke.
“Oh shit oh shit.”
Sight returned. “Is my hand blown off? Oh shit oh shit I am hurt bad.” Kolfage opened his lungs and yelled for help. He tried to move but Cortez and nearby soldiers were already on him, they stuffed muscled hands and forearms and towels into Kolfage’s lower bleeding half to try and save his life.
Kolfage looked at Cortez crazy with blood on him. He pushed against his battle buddy and yelled for Cortez to let him see his legs. Cortez put his bloody hand over Kolfage’s eyes to protect him from deadly shock.
The attack and response was 30 seconds, start-stop. Kolfage screamed for water and Cortez dumped a bottle on his face and mouth as medics arrived screaming, “don’t do that you’ll kill him.” Kolfage slumped and told him he was tired. Cortez slapped him hard again and again to piss him off and into consciousness.
The medics slammed him onto a blue body board and it was not until that very second Kolfage’s last sense returned. He started crying out and cussing in agonized pain. Every nerve in his body convulsed with panicked throbs, searching for his two missing legs and missing right arm. They were there but they weren’t. His hips led to a mash of bright red blood and tissue left pulsing under flapping pieces of skin. His right arm was shredded bone and more skin after the bend in his elbow. Cortez helped the medics push all of it, the flesh and bone and tissue from Balad’s sandy ground up onto the body board, all those ripped up pieces of a young man they now raced to keep together.
Kolfage screamed as the ambulance sped toward the hospital tent. He begged for morphine which the medics could not give. He cursed loudly at the medical staff who met the gurney with absolute shock.
And then, nothing. Kolfage passed out.
Cortez still had his hands on Kolfage’s wounds when the medics finally separated them. It gave Cortez a moment of reality. He looked at the ground. He saw things. Bloody things. He pushed away from them and jumped beside Kolfage in the ambulance. When the medical team charged the gurney through Balad’s field hospital Cortez was left outside. He stood by the hospital’s tent flaps, wondering why he was wearing his buddy’s bloody hat.
The base issued a call for blood. Within minutes a line of airmen, marines, sailors, and soldiers formed around the hospital’s sandbags and canvas. Some came on bikes, some just came running as soon as they heard the call.
It was barely 3 p.m.
Cortez waited out the news.
Kolfage survived the first surgery.
“We had to amputate,” the doctors said.
He stood watch through the night. Cortez endured as people gave more support than he could stand. His team gathered. The chaplain hovered. A bunch of other people were just ... there.
Some minutes he’d crouch. Some minutes he’d stand, or walk in the sliver of light seeping from the hospital tent. Cortez waited. And overnight, Balad’s medical team saved Kolfage’s life. He was stabilized to fly. Word went out: Kolfage would be evacuated immediately on a massive C-5 Galaxy. The men and women of Balad Air Base who had lined up to give blood shifted into a line to salute Kolfage’s path to the plane. They stood, some silent, some cheering support as the ambulance slowly drove an unconscious Kolfage to the flight line.
Cortez had 1,000 thoughts running through his head as the ambulance approached the plane.
“You can say goodbye,” he’d been told. Cortez was given special permission to approach the gurney before it was lifted into the C-5’s hold.
Cortez walked up to his friend. Kolfage was intubated, his neck was in a brace. His face was barely visible through gauze and bruises and wiring.
Cortez thought of all they had shared, serving in these dangerous lands. Cortez knew this was the last time he would see his friend for a long time. He remembered what they used to shout to stay motivated during long night watches and when they pushed each other at the gym.
Cortez leaned in close to Kolfage’s face and repeated the words.
“We live together. We fight together. We die together. We Band of Brothers.”
Two weeks later, compassionate doctors eased Kolfage into news he vaguely grasped as he drifted in and out of morphine-infused consciousness at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“Oh that really did happen. My legs are gone.”
I visited Kolfage at Walter Reed shortly after, because Wurm had reached out.
The room was dim, with blinds halfway drawn across the lone window. Kolfage was propped on pillows, a blanket covered him from his waist down. It went flat after his hips, except for small ridges of fabric caused by a dozen lines of tubing that connected him to fluids and medicine.
His arm was now a white bandaged nub that seeped yellow pus.
I had just recently returned from a second reporting trip to Iraq, but that experience had left me jaded. As the war had settled in, so had bad habits, greed, corruption and the first indications that the United States’ vision for Iraq’s future was not the path it was taking.
This Walter Reed room, with its cold bareness, was the exact opposite of the opulent and wasteful Baghdad I’d last seen. This was the real price and real life of war.
As we said our first “hellos” in a year, I looked into the hollow and drugged eyes of my friend and wondered if he knew he was smiling.
“You can sit on the bed,” she said. It was a direct but almost challenging welcome from his then-girlfriend, a pretty 20-year-old whom Kolfage had dated on and off since high school.
Kolfage had lived in Hawaii back then. He’d been a sandy, 15-year-old punk of a kid who was hanging out on an apartment balcony with friends when he saw her riding a skateboard and called down. When the Air Force moved her family to Texas he’d followed. Then he decided to enlist.
When the phone rang where she was staying in San Antonio during his second deployment she couldn’t stop screaming until someone could convince her Kolfage was still alive.
I sat on the bed. I don’t know what exactly I said to her or to Kolfage. I remember it was a muting task to open my mouth because every crutch I used to reconnect—“How’s it going? What have you been up to?”—was an embarrassing failure. I knew how Kolfage was. He was one-half. He was right in front of me. I still asked. What the hell else do you do? I asked about the hospital food.
“I just started eating solids again,” he said.
“The food sucks,” she corrected.
I asked if his parents were OK.
I asked what I could do to help.
That one was the trigger. His young girlfriend had the weight of the world on her shoulders, but said nothing. How do you complain about the stress and the fear and the responsibilities that did not exist three weeks ago, when you have both of your legs and your arm and you did not serve our country in Iraq? Kolfage never, ever said this. But it was in her head, in her mind, in her heart. It was in the eyes of every new “friend,” all those doctors and nurses and hospital coordinators who would make small talk of their own: “How are you doing?”
The first few times when she dared show fraying she saw the flicker of judgment. Of pity. And she quickly learned to just smile and say she was fine.
Instead she focused. She moved back and forth from checking on his bandages, like the nurses had taught her, to staring at her phone for the 100th time, wondering if this next number she’d been told to dial would finally get them the support they needed.
Access to cash. A place for her to crash while Kolfage healed. She had nowhere to go, she didn’t want to be anywhere but here. At night she curled up beside Kolfage on the bed, her shampooed hair a soft and welcome respite from the medical smell of the sheets.
When I asked what I could do to help, it was a hollow offer like so many others would be. She quickly shut me down; in even the few weeks since the attack she’d learned to read a real offer from an empty one. It was a survival instinct.
She was right, there was not much I could do. But I could take my notebook and my pen and four weeks after Kolfage was hit the best thing I could do was to write and write and get their story on our wire.
A few days after “United for the Journey” hit our newspapers they married. With no dress and no ring they were joined by a Walter Reed chaplain. They were a young man and a young woman who sat together on Kolfage’s hospital bed with no legs and no right hand.
He put his left hand in hers and they vowed to face this unknown together.
Four years later, it wasn’t the unknowns that broke them. It was the incompatibilities glossed over in a moment of crisis that could not survive outside of Walter Reed. They’d moved to an apartment in Arizona, where a grateful Air Force told Kolfage he could have any desk job he wanted. He still wasn’t using his legs. Kolfage still tried to avoid that public world and the relentless “holy shit” factor when people took in his injuries.
The night she left, he was sitting at his kitchen table, staring down at the papers before him.
Could he really do this?
Not bachelor life—he knew he could do that.
What Kolfage wanted was to get into architecture school. But first the formerly right-handed guy had to learn to write his name again.
He put the pencil in his left hand, and began to draw.
That act was the first step toward Paris, a bubbly, blonde little girl who flirts and demands Kolfage pick her when he’s in his wheelchair. It was the first step toward Beckham, his son, who was born about a year and a half after his sister. It was the first step toward Ashley, the love of his life who sat in his lap and rolled down the aisle and under the Air Force’s Saber Arch with him in Arizona in May 2011, white dress and long, blonde hair draping over them both.
“It was 100-plus degrees,” Kolfage said. “And I had my military uniform on. I was sweating my ass off.”
During the wedding the photographer caught a moment of the two of them. They were holding hands, taking it all in. They had their backs to the camera, on an outdoor stone patio looking out over the ridge.
“Being injured forever changed me,” Kolfage said. Once he took the first steps to draw and walk and drive his new Range Rover, he went after Ashley. He’d first seen her in a Chili’s in San Angelo when he was a young airman, before his deployment and before his injuries. That night she told him off; he told his buddies, “I’m going to marry that girl.”
So he did.
“Being remarried was a significant milestone,” Kolfage said. “It was a happy moment that set the path to my future again. It led me to children.”
Then the Gary Sinise Foundation called. They offered to build Kolfage a house. But he said “no thanks;” he was working on finishing his degree at the University of Arizona’s Architecture School, he didn’t think they needed it.
“But in my last year in college, Paris was born, and I started realizing how difficult things really were, chasing a kid around. My [good] left hand was getting worn out just doing random things,” Kolfage said. He also started to notice how many times he had to ask for help, and how their house design made that worse. For example, it had a huge master bath, but the toilet was in a separate closet that was too skinny for his wheelchair.
So Kolfage called the foundation back.
“We want to do this,” he said.
The coordinator asked back, “Where do you want to move?”
Kolfage graduated from the University of Arizona’s program in May of 2014 and, just after he graduated, he and Ashley and Paris got in the car and hit the road. They found Miramar Beach, Fla. “The people are super friendly” and many were from nearby Eglin Air Force Base.
“We told the Sinise Foundation,” Kolfage said, “and we started looking for land.”
Their finished house gives Kolfage independence he previously had to create. Over the course of a day, those extra tasks put additional wear and tear on the couple.
Like having to ask Ashley to fill a pot of water for him to boil pasta.
“Normally I could never fill a pot of water,” he said. “It would spill everywhere.”
But in their new house there’s a spigot built-in right beside the burner. So a pot can be filled while it is sitting on the stove.
Little things like that have made a huge difference.
Kolfage too has made a huge difference in others’ lives now. He and Ashley have repeatedly visited Walter Reed to show more recently injured service members that a good future is still possible. But few visits have struck as deep as a request that came in late 2015.
“I got a random message on my Facebook page, from a nurse in Canada,” he said. “The nurse asked, ‘Is this you?’ ”
There was a picture of Kolfage holding newborn son Beckham. The nurse had found it taped above the bed of an 11-year-old patient they were caring for, a young Ukrainian boy named Mykola.
Like Kolfage, Mykola was a triple amputee. He lost both legs and an arm, and his little brother was killed, after Mykola mistook a live grenade on the ground for a toy near his home in eastern Ukraine.
“He’s my hero,” Mykola told the nurses of the blond young father in the photograph; and they set out to find Kolfage.
A few weeks later Kolfage and Ashley were flying to Canada to meet him. Kolfage was nervous, they stopped in New York and made a side trip to pick up LEGO sets as gifts, thinking they would be an icebreaker.
Instead, Mykola turned his back and hid in the corner of his bed in tears.
So Kolfage tried another approach.
“I took off my arm, it disconnects at the elbow,” he said.
Mykola turned around.
“He came out of his shell a little bit, he looked at the arm, smiling. I thought, ‘Alright, I got his attention now.’ ” Kolfage said, “My LEGO arm broke the ice.”
They spent hours talking. Kolfage told him, through a translator, that it was going to be alright. Mykola had more of his legs remaining on both sides, and Kolfage told him, “You are going to be able to walk and run. You will be able to play soccer still.”
By the time it was time for them to go Mykola was showing off in his wheelchair and they took several pictures together.
“This was just a bump in the road,” Kolfage told him. “You can always do everything. You just have to find a new way to do it.”_____
Tara Copp is Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times. This article, her first for Air Force Magazine, is adapted from her book The Warbird, published by Squadron Books. Copp and Kolfage are now working together on a new book about his life and what drove Kolfage after the attack.
Brian Kolfage works today as a motivational speaker, volunteer, and capitalist. This year he launched a coffee company, Military Grade Coffee, because, as he put it, “Everybody drinks coffee.”
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